This is a 2016 update of the piece that first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 6, 2011.
In October each year, tens of thousands of teenagers from across NSW sit their first exam of the Higher School Certificate (HSC). After 12 years of formal education and sometimes umpteen hours of private coaching, they will raise their pens and begin the frantic, anxious scrawl that for 50 years has epitomised this rite of passage. As an ex-teacher, I supervised this herd anxiety many times. Thankfully now non-teaching supervisors do the job. It’s horrible to watch.
In 1967, when the first HSC examination was held, students filed solemnly into school halls or double classrooms to write rushed pen-scribbled essays in paper booklets. Their wrists ached from gripping the pen and the booklets were often smudged with sweat. These booklets were then sent to HSC marking centres where markers, teachers who wanted extra cash and supposedly knew their stuff, worked hard and long to read the scrawl and assess whether students had addressed the syllabus. That prehistoric system has clearly changed dramatically in our digital age. Not!
In 2016, students will still file solemnly into school halls or double classrooms. They will still rush their essays using pen and paper booklets. Their wrists will still ache. Their papers will be taken to marking centers, where informed (or not) teachers wanting extra cash will mark to standardised guidelines. Possibly the only difference is that the essay scribble this October will be far less legible due to this generation who’ve been taught to use technology rather than pen and paper. I pity the markers.
In 2016 again, the Board of Studies has given millions of dollars to the advancement of STEM subjects in NSW schools. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. I guess hundreds of years ago, pens and pencils may have been a terrific STEM concept.
Today’s students from the age of three have sculpted their lives around their computers and the websites that frame their social experience. Their school life has revolved around the typing and digital editing of projects. Often assignments must be submitted electronically through plagiarism programs like ‘Turn it in’ before any hard-copy is given to the teacher. Compulsory technology subjects have been allocated time in the curriculum to prepare them for the world of work or further study where absolutely everything has to be digitally generated.
Why then, after so much technology focus, are these teenagers forced to use pen and paper to get the best marks in a test that largely decides their future? Surely the writing of an impressive essay on Othello requires word processing and editing, a skill taught to these students throughout their school years? School principals are asking the same question. Students are asking the question very loudly indeed.
The NSW Board of Studies however states that “the HSC is a hand-written examination”. Not even students with hand injuries are allowed a computer in case they gain “unfair advantage” over those scribbling with pen.
Yet according to Board of Studies data, some students receive special provision in HSC exams that could well be construed as ‘unfair advantage’. In 2009 for example, 41.7 per cent of HSC candidates from a Sydney Rudolf Steiner school received special provisions largely due to anxiety. These provisions can mean extra time given as periods of rest in an exam, or a writer to actually write dictated material. The difference between fair and unfair advantage can hang on a drop of sweat.
No-one doubts that the introduction of laptops into the HSC has issues. All web-based research by a candidate needs to be blocked. Keyboards can be noisy and this could disturb others (yet many students find the hush of an exam room very disturbing indeed). The constant back-up of entered material needs to be foolproof.
Yet compared to pen and paper issues, these problems seem small. My recent poll in the popular Facebook page HSC Discussion Group 2016 revealed that 78% of HSC students believe the exams should be a mixture of handwritten and computer based depending on the subject. Only 7.5% believed the HSC should be all computer based while 15% wanted to stay entirely with handwriting. These figures show incredible common sense among year 12 students and a willingness to accept that some subjects do warrant the longhand approach.
The introduction of digital testing centers into universities shows that mass equitable testing is possible. Thousands of students now submit both essays and multiple choice tasks via centers equipped with ID checking and security systems. In 2009, the Board of Studies set 2012 as a target for testing HSC software. It’s already four years late. According to a spokesman, “The pilot and testing of computer technology will happen but there’s no specific date.”
The Board of Studies, so quick to include technology in the K-12 curriculum yet so slow to actually use it, need to set a firm and realistic target so that both teachers and students know where they stand. Digitization of the HSC is inevitable; just don’t throw away your pens yet!