Authentic assessment and the HSC – a challenge?

I am becoming concerned that the internal assessment tasks for HSC English are beginning to mimic the external HSC examination requirements. Speeches are becoming memorised essays based on past HSC questions, creative writing tasks are narratives based on past Belonging HSC questions, listening tasks require students to complete short answer questions styled on Section I of the AOS HSC paper, viewing/representing tasks have become essay-plans in the form of ‘graphic organisers’ …

The reality of Stage 6 English is the HSC examination and the demand for Band 6s.

When designing assessment tasks teachers are very conscious of the skills our students need to master in order to achieve top marks in the HSC. Yet with the reality of DER kids on the horizon, isn’t it time to bring back some creativity, choice and flexibility into our HSC assessments? The Stage 6 English syllabus provides English teachers with quite clear objectives and outcomes. We know the language modes that our students must be assessed on – these aren’t all ‘reading’ and ‘writing’. It’s not 1902 anymore.

I’m hoping my PLN can help me and my English-teacher/Language Arts colleagues out by posting a comment below with suggested alternative, authentic assessments (a real world audience would be a bonus too!) that would ensure our students are given the chance to demonstrate their understanding of course outcomes – this means understanding of certain concepts, the relationships between text, context & values, why some texts continue to have significance in a range of contexts, how composers shape meaning in and through texts AS WELL as their competency in the following skills:

* reading

* writing

* listening

* speaking

* viewing/representing ( Representing: The language mode that involves composing images by means of visual or other texts. These images and their meaning are composed using codes and conventions. The term can include such activities as graphically presenting the structure of a novel, making a film, composing a web page, or enacting a dramatic text – Stage 6 English Syllabus pg. 99)

I would really love it if you could post a suggested task to meet one or more of the above criteria, tell me what text(s) you have used it for and any web tools you would use if the assessment is of a digital form.

We need to shake things up in English – especially HSC English. I am all for Project Based Learning and inquiry learning … can this work in the Stage 6 classroom when the time to cover our texts is limited and the stakes are so high for our students? I know there are some wonderfully creative teachers out there who do some wonderfully creative and meaningful assessments with their students. Please share any ideas you have.

NOTE: Language Arts teachers or teachers not from NSW, Australia – I really want to hear from you as well!


29 thoughts on “Authentic assessment and the HSC – a challenge?

  1. Oh where to start…

    I feel strongly that students will be inspired by passionate teachers. This means teachers should LOVE their assessment tasks. In English we have so many options and chances to be creative – this means that variety is available to us in assessment tasks – and it should be.

    When planning assessments I try to remember the following:

    a) it is meant to be a snapshot of learning up to that moment (no multipart tasks)
    b) variety and engaging tasks are the order of the day
    c) do I love the task itself?
    d) how does this task aid their preparation for the HSC? (not an evil thought completely)
    e) where possible, can this be done at school? (at home tasks cause many problems)

    With laptops and/or computer labs we have many more opportunities to be creative. Technology allows for so many options.

    My prelim class just completed a short film in which they explored additional texts for their Area of Study. By looking at their additional texts we had variety – and therefore 27 films all students would want to watch. If the task involved the set text – well you can guess the boredom that would arise.

    For Extension English I have my students work on their creative writing – and handing in a portfolio as a self published book via (usually costs them about $8 – but I privately offer to pay for the students who can’t afford this). They have to work with an art student to create their cover, proof read their work, and publish. All the skill development in their writing will be obvious, but the final product as something to keep seems to motivate them.

    For listening tasks we spend some time analysing sound techniques in film. Then our task is a series of short questions in one class (potentially boring I know) – but our questions go deeper than comprehension of plot, or simple discussion of the tone of the speaker. Students contemplate diegetic sound as well as the impact sound tracks for example. The questions draw out of them their understanding of the complexities of film techniques we don’t always get to in a wider essay type question.

    My favourite task in recent years has been a short film project during our study of ‘Looking for Richard’. Students were asked to document their learning via a film – in the same style as Pacino’s film. This required them to understand the content AND the techniques used in the film as they completed the task for the module. The results were amazing. We had great films from students making short docos, explaining their frustrations, successes and finally (for the most part) understanding. They also had learnt enough to include a variety of engaging scenes in their films so that the audience would stay with them. Great stuff. (And they said they enjoyed it too!)

    Enough from me – ignore the HSC – have fun with it all. Okay – don’t ignore the HSC, but do make learning engaging for students AND teachers.

    • I like your check-list for assessments. I think it would make sense if every faculty devised a list of requirements for each task – a whole-faculty approach would mean that the assessment can be loved by ALL teachers, and not just the one teacher who designed it.
      I’m really excited by your use of film as a tool to reflect on learning – it encourages both creativity and critical thinking. Of course the concerns will be raised that we don’t have the equipment for every student to create an individual film. But really, if we’re creative with our resources, anything is possible!
      I love the idea of the students actually having their work published – so is this in the ebook form? I will certainly look into that for my Year 9 class who LOVE creative writing as well as my prelim Extension class who are going to be creating their own visual appropriation of an older text. So many cool ideas – I wanna be in your class!

  2. Hi Bianca,
    Your honest thoughts about authentic assessment are on the minds of many English teachers that I know. We have one assessment in our KLA that I can honestly say works very well in engaging our students and creating an atmosphere of true peer interaction, reflection and nurturing. We have modified the digital narrative assessment ideas that were suggested when the AOS changed. Our assessment involves Advanced and Standard students creating a digital narrative on Belonging but they also have to share it with the class and complete a reflection activity that uses a PMI to gather their thoughts on the work of their Peers, how this has impacted on their understanding of the concept, evaluate their own work and learning process. They use the PMI to write the refection statement. Our students initially feel challenged by this task but so far, without fail, all students have said it is the BEST assessment task that they have ever undertaken. The sharing, deep understanding and stronger relationships that are built with peers are without doubt something valued by parents, students and teachers. Our students can’t always “reflect naturally”, it is something that needs to be fostered and taught. Reflecting and connecting concepts to real life situations is imperative for success and confidence in English don’t you think? In term 4 last year, one of my students used Glogster (they had choice) to embed their narrative. All students used a variety of media applications, according to their expertise and confidence level and included a voice over narration. For students who felt uncomfortable with some media, it was acceptable to use powerpoint and give a “live” narration as they presented. Only 2 students in three years have chosen this mode and one was an outstanding task on his Connections to the land. We have kept this assessment task because it is impossible to “copy” another students work due to the nature of the task and because it has been so successful. Many students have achieved some of their best results in this task.
    Must fly Bianca- great post 

    • There was a digital narrative assessment task for Belonging? How did I miss that one? I am impressed that you school was brave enough to adopt it as a task. I really would like to see more risks being taken by teachers when it comes to assessment tasks. The kids ultimately surprise us, and isn’t that a good thing? We don’t want our own ideas and words returned to us in written form. We want the processing and transformation of ideas into new texts, right? I mean how can students truly demonstrate that they understand how meaning is shaped in texts if they’re not being given the freedom to do so themselves in a variety of creative media?
      I would LOVE a copy of this belonging task if you don’t mind sharing? Thanks SO much for your comment!
      I agree – students MUST be involved in the work of their peers – it absolutely strengthens and consolidates their own understanding of concepts and how texts work! Wow – I’m so inspired!!

  3. I recently read the Queensland Senior Physical education syllabus on the suggestion of a colleague who had worked at the University of Queensland. He rated it as one of the best physical education curriculum in the world – and he doesn’t give away praise easily. I have recently led undergone a course review for our Sport and Physical Education degree that focused on pedagogy and which developed our assessment across the three years of the course. In this way students would not meet a form of assessment in years 2 and 3 that hadn’t been introduced in previous years. So exams were started in year 1 as seen, then partially seen and final unseen. While presentations started with ppt, then poster and finally ended in written assignment and subsequent viva. We hope that this will help our students to better understand the formative and summative assessment we use across the course. These are important and ongoing considerations for all educators and many people are tackling the ways in which they can help assessment be educative rather than simply as a means of ranking students.

    • Absolutely agree with you there Ashley – assessment should be both formative AND summative. What unfortunately appears to be happening is the mirroring of the external exam with the internal assessment. Very dangerous as it does not give opportunity for students to demonstrate a variety of learning strategies – it also fails to assess that really critical ‘just in time’ learning that students experience often as a result of inquiry-learning experiences.
      I like you idea of students ‘leveling up’ with assessments – nice little gaming analogy that I’m sure your students understand. Kinda like assessment training wheels 😉

  4. Bianca,

    Great post, with some inspirational and innovative responses. The difficulty is the nature of a one-shot, high-stakes standardised test. Of course teachers are going to teach to the test and prepare students for the exam-style questions. At my old Sydney school this began in Year 7, not just Year 11. A system based on measuring a student’s learning through a standardised exam is anachronistic, and reducing student learning to a number is immoral. No amount of tweaking a broken system will improve it. We are teaching students to jump through pointless hoops. Keep questioning the system. It is not based on what we know about how people learn.

    • Cameron you are so right there – it is the system that is broken. It is incompatible with DER and where that is leading many of us teachers in regards to our ideas about teaching and learning. PBL really throws a spanner into the works. I am plunging head first into PBL with years 9, 10 and 11. I have only just taken a breather from my excitement and planning to see the circling fins that is the HSC exams in the next few years. I’m just hoping that what I’m doing with PBL is right and I sort of think I need some form of empirical data or something to prove my gut feeling is right – student engagement in learning and assessment that is authentic will result in better results in these silly high stakes external exams because their processing of the ‘content’ and ‘skills’ whilst doing would have actually consolidated the both, right? (I hope that makes sense, just me babbling incoherently again, lol) I know this data exists from other studies but what about in my classroom with my students in my area? Know what I mean? Context is a real determining factor in learning.
      Can’t wait to post my Year 10 students’ responses to their latest PBL question – students questioning the system. Subversive, fun.

  5. I’ve been concerned about the trends you outline as well. My favourite task in the last two years has been a poetry performance, in teams, of a Gwen Harwood poem, followed by a written reflection where students commented on what they discovered about the poem from other team performances. This task really challenges students and their intimate knowledge of the poem they prepared for performance stays with them right to the HSC (we do it in Term 4 of Year 11 year). Their reflections show a depth of knowledge of the poetry generally and a critical stance that considers the variety of interpretations that are possible, as well as the variety of representations in the performances.

    • I LOVE the idea of drama in the English classroom! Why can’t I seem to fit it in anywhere? Is it because the Syllabus tells me I get to cover a Shakespearean drama and a film in 6 weeks? Phew! But Module B, yes – doing Orwell’s essays so going to get my kids debating – might even video them!
      Your task sounds wonderful! Anyway I could get a copy of it? ta!

  6. I just wondered, if we’re talking formative assessment – and you’re using a PBL process, can the student not design their own assessment item? #justasking why not.

    • Hey Dean 🙂 There are SO many possibilities with assessment. The big barrier of course is the HSC itself and the IMMENSE pressure it asserts over teachers, students, school, wider community. It is SUCH a big deal for our kids – they are told that it will determine their future. As such it is very, very difficult for a faculty to hand over the responsibility of assessments to students. I guess it requires an understanding of the beast that is the HSC, but essentially ranking is very, very important. Sometimes there is just .5 of a mark between 1 & 2 – and ranking influences your final result. It’s a numbers game and that’s scary too cos we aren’t mathematicians (a part from those of us who are, lol) – so we play it safe and stick to assessments that are easy to track, mark etc.
      I guess if you’re thinking in terms of ‘representation’ then it wouldn’t be too hard to give students a CHOICE of medium, sure. Is that what you mean?

  7. Here in the West, we have a similar system to the HSC, and I also struggle with the exam driving the courses. To get our students away from the safe analytical essay answer, we run a writing portfolio task. Over the year we provide writing prompts which are completed in class. The students choose two to edit and polish for assessment.

    This is successful in moving them into other forms of writing in a safe, not necessarily for marks, fashion. Love the look of David, thanks for that!

    • Thanks for your comment Lizabeth! So are these writing prompts for essay-style responses or creative? Do the students know when they are coming? Students seem to be quite anxious about all assessment tasks these days and want to know every little thing that must be included. Sad that the genuine essay has died away for a more polished, prepared response. I certainly never has pre-written essays when I say my English exams in the late 1990s.
      I’d have to blame the immense pressure put on students to get the elusive ‘Band 6’.

      • They know the day that the prompt is coming, but don’t see them until the class. This tests their thinking on the spot, imaginative writing skills.

        This week mine had to choose from, continuing the start of a narrative called “How To Mend A Broken Heart”, an opinion piece about the Oxford Dictionary including the symbol ❤ and a feature article about teen movies.

        They have written blogs, dialogues and all sorts. We really privilege the personal voice.

        I'm not a fan of the prepared essay either. Usually they don't answer the question!

  8. I am both inspired by the ideas shared here and disappointed that I remain in a very linear and predictable assessment process. My dilemma stems from the fact that I am locked in to the typical assessment processes you initially describe as I am but one voice in a faculty dogged in these historical approaches. Still, it is my challenge to encourage assessment change as you describe. Thanks for the thoughts.

  9. I think that getting parents down to the school asking for more rich and diverse assessment tasks in senior English is key…but would it happen? As well as teacher resistance to rich tasks (‘too hard to mark’ drama, and ‘don’t have room to store’ dioramas or collage work) there is parental resistance too…”How will you make it fair?”

    It takes a strong Head Teacher and a supportive Senior Executive to make changes away from exam-driven HSC in-school assessment, I believe. Unless you have the Boss there to back you when you stop running exam-prep in disguise as assessment, you won’t get far 😦

    • I agree – it MUST come from the combined stake-holders within the educational context. Teachers often are simply responding to what surrounds them – pressures of the system, the school system, the parental and student expectations. Being a HT would be a damn hard job!

  10. From p.114 of the Stage 6 English syllabus:
    “There should be a balance among types of assessment tasks such as creative responses over time, composition portfolio, oral presentation, viewing and listening tasks. EXAMINATIONS such as CLASS TESTS, term tests and trails MUST NOT EXCEED 30% of the [internal] assessment program”

    Oh for the resources to do an audit of how many school actually stick to this.

    I’ve never worked in one that has.

    • This is a point I consider regularly – the 30% – but see the clever thing is that these assessments aren’t technically ‘examinations/tests/trials’ they are ‘speeches’ that a literally spoken essays, ‘representing’ the structure of an essay for AOS and ‘listening’ to a song/poem/excerpt from a text and student responds with short answer questions (like Section I, Paper I) or an extended response. (I know this last one JUST slips into class test).
      Problematic, huh? And the biggest problem? It is intitutionalised, systemic … public, private, selective. I am going to write a follow-up post today based on my reading of the AATE article on Senior assessment in QLD schools. I felt all of it, especially the angst of the two teacher being interviewed.

  11. We are currently experiencingthe HSC in our house. My daughter has always been an A grade student, but I must say English advanced has destroyed her, she has willingly ‘let go’ of Engish. For the first time in all her schooling she comes home crying because english doens’t make sense, too hard and too demanding. Having postgratuate accreditation, I thought I could help… but No. It was beyond me. I checked out BOS syllabus – but to be honest it was a convoluted labarynth. My question is why has the levels of attainment become so gruelling, what is the purpose of having children hate learning?

    • hell yes… it is same for me, i am a hsc student and my mother did numerous degrees in english and even when she edited my work it was only deemed a band 4. ridiculous!

      I think english is x50 harder than chemistry, physics and extension two mathematics combined. I achieved 90+ in yr8,9,10 but in yr11 and 12 I am getting only 70-80% for my absolute best work, I achieving higher results in chemistry- to which i spend half of my time.

      P.S. its “labyrinth”

      Bianca (ex A+ english student)

      • Hi Bianca 🙂

        Thanks for your comment – it’s always nice to have students pop by and say howdy – especially since everything written on this blog goes back to you guys, the students!

        Yup – it’s a damn hard course. It’s also a course that lots (I think the survey data even says ‘most’) students hate … shame, cos there’s so much potential for it to be amazing.

        Good luck in your future endeavours!! 🙂

    • It really is a trying subject – only because of the extreme difficulty of receiving top results without devoting a very, very large amount of time to perfecting the sophistication and complexity of your ideas/arguments and developing ‘flair’ in your writing. These are pretty much the hallmarks of a Band 6 response. To be honest, it is really a difficult course to teach if you’re thinking only of results and not about genuine learning – it actually makes the course painful for the students and the teacher.
      I am sorry to hear that your daughter struggled so much … the only remedy is lots of wide reading and lots of writing practice 😦

  12. Pingback: PBL + me = why? | Bianca Hewes

  13. As a former student completing the HSC..
    I think there needs to be more emphasis on essential skills. I know myself struggle with ‘writing on the spot’. Especially in creative writing. Some people are lucky to have possessed fluent and eloquent writing skills.
    There are students that are avid readers, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are avid writers.. However there are also those students that hardly read books at all, but have acquired perfect writing skills.
    Do you get my picture? I feel that there is an imbalance. There needs to be some sort of benchmark designed to help students to reach to their current level education. This benchmark should enable all students, with persistence of course, to reach the highest band.
    I mean, like after 13 years of schooling your parents would expect you to walk out with fluent English skills..

    I feel that English is the most difficult subject. Compulsory and difficult. And like the comment just above I feel that I achieve more in Chemisty with half the work. My best work in english dosen’t cut in in comparison to my other subjects.

    I understand that English is an ‘essential’ subject, really only because its the base stand behind all our other subjects. However, I feel that English, although compulsory isn’t focusses enough on essential skills, i.e. reading to understand etc..

    So yeah, this is just my two cents.

  14. There are some great ideas on here that I can’t wait to share with my colleagues. A colleague and I were discussing the options for a listening/viewing & representing preliminary standard English assessment task for our close study of text unit. We were thinking of having the students create a short (very short) film representing a short extract from the novel. We would also like the students to peer assess the films. We are up for the challenge and are really hoping this will help our students become excited about senior English! (Fingers crossed)

    • I’ve created a similar assessment task for the close study of the text ‘Jasper Jones’. The students embraced the challenge and they created some wonderful short films. We divided the novel up into chapters so in the end all the short films represented the text as a whole.

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