This post is for my past and present HSC students. For those who struggle with the complexity of demands to those who struggle to get out of bed. You’re all doing something that few generations of human beings have done to somehow prove their worth to society. I take my hat off to those young people – and those not so young – who are involved in the behemoth that is the HSC year and especially the preparation for the final examinations. This may sound like a confession.. and I suppose to some degree it is.

In Australia, decision makers have moved slowly but with alarming one-mindedness towards a standardised testing regime that seeks to measure the progress of each and every student across the continent. In New South Wales, my home state, the epitome of a students’ academic trajectory is the Higher School Certificate (HSC) and the standardised test on which students are impaled around October are the external HSC examinations. One for each subject, ranging from 1.5 hours to 3 hours in length each. These exams are completed at the same time by all students and marked “externally” by teachers in pig pens (not kidding – they were actually in a pig pen once, though they did have carpet taped down over the grates and there were no pigs in the pavilion at that time.)

As much as I wish the situation might be different, there is incredible pressure on most teachers to have their students perform to either the same or increasingly higher standards on these tests. The tests have become highly formulaic in many cases, with students often able to predict the style, structure and expected form of responses required by markers to get particular marks.

On the one hand, this allows students to prepare somewhat effectively for a concentrate period of insanity in which they are expected to recall vast amounts of information learned over at least the previous 12 months. On the other hand, it stifles any chance for students to express true individuality and differentiated learning or creation.

Naturally this is not the case for such creative subjects such as Visual Art, Drama and Music, or Design and Technology to some degree, as students are encouraged to find their own style and produce major works that are a reflection of this.

Whilst I see the need for the system to have standardised and relative measurements of students in order to deliver a common credential, I do struggle some days in exactly how I go about balancing the demands of the system with the ideal of a dynamic and contemporary education system: that we teach students to be passionate, to be creative, to love learning, to be critical and independent thinkers and to challenge themselves constantly.

As a history teacher, I fall into the trap of working out what I need to teach according to the content of the Syllabus. I embed technology in order to help students communicate more effectively and dynamically with me and each other. I try to match analytical thinking and creative thinking with the content to vary it and make connections to other things the students are learning. I was so thrilled to see that several of my students had used history as a central theme in their major works for Visual Arts. Clearly, despite falling into the system’s trap, my students have gained a broader appreciation for history beyond the content.

I just worry that despite being the most qualified profession that it has ever been, despite being the most scrutinised profession it has ever been, despite having prescriptive curriculum documents and several layers of oversight, despite engaging in more professional development than ever before, despite the benefits (and threats) of new technologies and new applications of technology for teaching and learning…. we still aren’t helping our students get ready for the world as it is… rather than the world the system thinks it is.

Are we getting better at teaching students how to perform on the test or are we getting better at how to teach students?

There is no silver bullet to education. There is no one answer. Some students need one experience and others require different support and engagement. But, if we can find a bridge between the high stakes testing we put our students through and some real life experience that will be of benefit to them forever, education as it is now will remain relevant.

Good luck in the next month (and a bit) to those of you with students or your own children wrestling with the HSC. It’s a key to a door, behind which lays the rest of your life. And if all else fails and you don’t get the key you need to open it, kick it down.