Thursday, June 21, 2007

NSW HSC and Kitchen Conversations

Tonight I had the rare privilege of having my daughters talk to me while I was cooking tea. Food is still on, but I am taking the time to start this post while it cooks. Just a stew I am afraid, something I like but the rest of my family does not.

This year, thank God, is the last year we have to put up with the NSW Higher School Certificate. While I will be very sad to see the end of my connection with the school world, I will not miss the HSC. Not one bit.

In all the discussion now underway in Australia about measurable educational standards, few mention that education is meant to involve fun as well as work or, for that matter, that there is more to life than formal work or study. No wonder the idea of a gap year has become so popular. Kids just want to get away from study.

The core of the problem lies in the continuous assessment system. Learning from the experience of (Helen) eldest, both we and Clare are much more focused on the cumulative school mark that will ultimately, when scaled, form half the marks. The final public exams form the other half. Here Clare's results are presently very mixed, all the way from a band one in English to a high band five in art.

In management terms, and I have come to think of the HSC not as education but as a management problem involving the whole family, we obviously have some issues that need to be addressed in English, whereas art is looking like a potential band six.

The problem is to work out just what to do.

If we look at the likely UAI, the final University admission mark, Clare's three units of English (she dropped the fourth unit along with two unit maths ealier in the year) stand to more than offset high band fives or even sixes in art and ancient history. Of the other subjects, drama is a bit problematic at the moment, while design and technology is sort of sitting in the middle.

Thank heaven for eldest in all this. She is, I suspect, a born teacher and has been through the system, so she can identify and explain problems to Clare in a way that we cannot.

I am sad about English. Clare had been blossoming in this area. She loves reading, has a great ear for dialogue, and was doing a lot of her own writing. Despite extra coaching outside the school, she has gone backwards this year in the face of the particular disciplines and rigour of HSC English. With help from Helen she will pull up, but I still find it sad that the effect of studying English has been a reduced interest in the subject and in writing.

Conversely, her love of ancient history and of art has grown. To me, art has been the surprise. I have always known that Clare was creative, but I had no idea at the start of year 11 that art would become her best subject.

Her major work, really a series of works, has just been reviewed by external examiners organised by the school to give the girls an independent assessment of progress. Clare originally chose her art project to reinforce her English studies, using different art styles to interpret English works. While that objective has really gone, the art has continued.

The examiner's assessment was mixed - some works were highly praised, others criticised - but the overall tone was positive and also gave her some clear guidance.

Enough. Time to eat.


Unknown said...

Being a product of the new HSC myself, I can certainly relate to some of which you put forward in this post. I believe that there is too much weight put onto the summative types of assessment in this system. An 'end-of-year' recap exam hardly shows any progress or learning, rather, in my opinion, it shows that a student can simply reproduce answers, which, in turn, is what the teaching process becomes. Instead of the classroom being a dynamic environment with free thought, its a room where you learn how to write the same answer as everyone else.

I became competent at this, but certainly at the cost of things - original thought certainly wasn't evident in my answers, which, if a question had come up requiring it, would have stumped me. But, in saying that, I managed to get my way through to the end of Extension Two English with my highest marks - 48/50. Comparatively, I scored better at that than my Advanced or Extension One, and I attribute this to one reason. The structure of the classroom and the assessments was more formative, more subjective, and more informal than you find in the other 'main' subjects in the school. One of the Ext. Two assessments was a progress journal, another a viva-voce mid-course, another was a first copy/draft (I think) and the final was the actual piece (in my case, a story). No doubt this is familiar to you (perhaps). It allowed me to express my own thoughts and ideas, as well as write a *creative* piece and not *another* essay, and it wasn't marked to a scale or criteria as hard as the other subjects were.

I've been led to believe (and correct me if I'm wrong), through other sources and your post, that the same sort of assessment (formative, subjective, and informal) is present in Creative Arts subjects - free expression, own (creative) works etc.

I think that the other subjects need to incorporate this style of assessment into their marking systems in order for a *real* mark to be obtained. Similarly, I would support some sort of ipsative assessment in the subjects as well. The progress journal (a form of ipsative assessment as I see it) allowed me to self-diagnose problems and areas of improvement, as well as the teacher, and *that* helped me learn more effectively than a teacher standing at the front of the room, teaching me to reproduce the answers that I needed to write.

I probably should have said this earlier, but I didn't have problems with the way my other English sources were taught (my Adv. English was taught by my Ext Two teacher as well). It was highly engaging and interesting and gave room for *some* freedoms, but, in the end and looking back, i can see it was a reproduction subject as well. My teacher obviously hated this, and tried to bend the borders as much he could, but in the end, it was the same.

Contrast this to my IPT, my Ancient History and my Economic who all had designated times of the week where we would write essays from the previous year's exams over and over and over.

Sorry for the length of the topic, but the post was so laden with topics which I really wanted to voice an opinion on.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thomas, thanks very much for this, and my apologies for my slow response.

I read your comments with great interest. May I run it as a guest post? I think it deserves greater coverage. I can then add my own comments.

Thomas said...

No problem with the time delay. We all have lives that need tending to. And please, by all means, feature the comment. I'd be quite honoured to be honest.