After over two weeks of HSC marking, it’s a good time to reflect on the nature of the examinations in NSW and how they impact the rest of schooling for most students.

Reading the work of students is always a rewarding experience. Whether it’s a major project that you’ve seen drafted, redrafted and drafted again, or a haiku that took them ten minues, seeing how students thing via their words on a page is enlightening. I am constantly reminding people that actually these HSC kids are writing an essay in 45-60 minutes, during an exam which may have several other parts, during a week which may have several other exams, during a year which has almost endless high-stakes testing and assessment.

An interesting side note is that I am one of the only markers who has actually sat the exam we were marking as it was introduced for the first time when I went through. I don’t point that out too often, as it shatters the myth that I am a mature, wise educator (which is usually constructed via my beard, if nothing else.)

In a conversation with Miriam Tanti (@miriamtanti) who lectures at the Strathfield campus of the Australian Catholic University, I was forced to think about the impact of these exams on the rest of a student’s secondary schooling. Essentially, I believe that those exams dictate the kind of learning that students do at school for most of the time between the ages of 11 and 18. Many, many conversations around assesssment in my PLN and beyond refer to the shadow of the HSC.

So the challenge for us in NSW is: to what extent are we preparing kids for the HSC exams and to what extent are we preparing them for life beyond them?

I’d like to think that in Years 7 to 10 there may be an overt effort to make learning relevant, engaging, stimulating and sustainable so that the skills and knowledge, values and experiences which students are exposed to somehow stick to them and they can carry them along their lives. But how often is this pushed to the side for an examination, an assessment task or some other form of ‘academic’ learning to the detriment of an experience that might actually have a lasting impact on the individual in question?

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in a system of measurement and feedback for students so that they can show growth and extend themselves. If we don’t have a structure in place, we perhaps lend ourselves to a static life of never becoming more than we are. However, I have started to increasingly worry that whilst I consider myself somewhat adept at preparing kids to perform to their best at the HSC, am I somehow denying them other aspects of learning which won’t be lost in the post-exam memory deterioration.

In a climate of increasing testing, increasing accountability and increasing documentation of “progress”, is it dangerous to question the entire institution? Surely if we don’t question things we can never be truly sure of their worth. I wonder if those students who question the system as it stands have a valid argument. Anyway, back to marking.

(I’d love you to comment and let me know what you think about the impact on high-stakes testing on students’ happiness, growth and progress.)