The pains of HSC in NSW

This is an edited post from a previous blog on a previous website which I have since departed from, but I’d appreciate any and all comments/ criticisms of my appraisal of what can be safely called the worst administration and judging system any educational foundation has put forth.

       Those of you who took the HSC knew that there was two paths you could go down- dont care or work-your-ass-off. Anything over 4 hours sleep a night for the 3 months leading to the exams is not caring by the way. So lo and behold, with our brains chock-a-block full of information that we see dreaded grammatical errors in our question papers. Some are unobtrusive and generally not important, such as some questions put in bold and others not in the same paper, then moving on to wtf level with essay questions worth 2 marks (actually 25) etc. This is all fairly dealeable, I mean its not like they have had a good 7 months to read, re-read and proof read is it? Oh yes they do. It makes me think just how many times they have actually read through the questions they are giving the thousands of HSC students? What really does it though is when they distribute startling questions. Two of these surprised me. One was for English Advanced, in that we were supposed to study six episodes of Frontline. Fair enough, but there were 7 episodes on the two tapes that we had to buy. Which one was the odd one out? This meant that owing to HSC exam question style (see next paragraph) a poor kid is going to study his/her ass off on the wrong thing. Thankfully this issue was resolved, when we read the former HSC exam paper with the same study material, otherwise we wouldnt know. The second, and perhaps the most baffling was an Ancient History question, asking the students to explain and analyse the contributions of Mentuhotep I to Ancient Egypt or thereabouts. Problem was, all but 1 historian that they had given us in their textbooks (and our own studying textbooks) say that the dynasties that we study started with Mentuhotep II, while the odd one out refers to this Mentuhotep II being I. Students I know in my class was so perplexed by what should have been a nice, large question that they moved onto the harder ones on topics we did not study in-depth. Why did we select certain areas over others? Here comes the next paragraph.


            For a little of Business Studies, Ancient History and most definitely English, there is an aura of predictability. This stems not from the syllabus, oh no, only certain parts of it, as deemed how you study- smaller parts, more intensely. If you get asked on another part you are screwed, but thats not going to happen. Ever since the HSC has been introduced, every question for paper 2 and the Core Stimulus question has involved Select TWO extracts/acts/episodes of —–, how do these —-?

So basically you are in the clear if you read two important areas of the text, then you can quote better than if you studied the whole thing. Of course, the HSC could in theory ask a question relating to a specific area, but it has never been attempted and probably wont be for a long time. Why is this? I dont know, perhaps they realise some kids are cramming so they give them the green pass to work on just a little part, and get the gist. I on the other hand studied every page of King Lear, made 50 pages of notes, condensed, quotes w/ explanations and made my own hypothesis concerning King Lear, and favouring traditionalist versions of play, not postmodernism, stuck with my personal beliefs on the what the play is about. The question of course asks for varying interpretations, annoyingly about the 3 sisters who I a) did not study as a feminist, I dont like feminism b)paid due attention to, but found Edmonds Machiavellian characteristics far more compelling and c) Lo and behold, did not pay extra attention to their scenes above others. Painfully, the question asks wholly about the sisters involvements and behaviour, plus how they may be analysed in a modern theme i.e. feminism and/or postmodernism. I thank my lucky stars that Psychoanalytical interpretation is still considering modern, and still presents values that I enjoy, or else I wouldnt have a decent mark at all. So, foolish me who read the whole book and made notes, and good for the guys who did to death Act 1 Scene 1 plus some Scene involving the daughters. The teacher duly warned the class about studying certain scenes, but I made personal note to do it properly, from start to finish, and I paid for it. Going to Ancient History, some schools Ive heard of only doing 1 part of the syllabus as it is a) too long and b) undeniably going to have a question on it. What is this craziness? We are literally cutting our stimulus into tiny pieces in order to study it harder, PLUS the HSC is going along with it with the questions they present, hence its a vicious circle. Paradoxically, we have one exam amassing to 50% of our total mark. Regardless of the safety net of handing in for special provisions owing to illness etc, what if you just had an off day? Maybe even stressed out of your mind perhaps? So yeah, one exam and its done (with 2 hour and 1 ½ hour for some subjects and the exception of 2 exams for English). This means two things:

a)      You mess up here, you’re done for. I dont care how much professional study guys and stress therapists say it doesnt matter, at that moment in your life, it really does mean much, much much more than what it should be, of course this is me looking back on it.

b)      You have to deliver all your information you have learned over the course (no pun intended) of a year, deriving base knowledge from the year before that. You then need to cram this into sections, for example, an area studied for a good 3 months (at an absolute minimum, discounting additional exam study, essay writing skills etc) is transformed into a 30 minute zip. Wanna know how long a marker will look at a section for English? 3 minutes. My teacher informed me to make the first page have lots of information, and to have a lot of pages after that to get a good mark. She wasnt wrong if the markers take less time reading my master exam than cooking and eating Pot Noodle.


Moving on, why on earth does English get so much precedence? I mean people need to know reading and writing but cmon. Im not one to talk, I love the subject, but it became easily the most time consuming subject, and the exam board and UAC makes no exceptions, stating that not only do you have 2 exams for it, you also must have them as a part of your subjects implicated in the UAI. Speaking of which, lets move to handling the UAI shall we?


            Debacle. Sham. Cacophonically bloody cull. You will be hearing these words a lot more if I had the patience to type them all again in this paragraph. Ok, so Board of Studies administers the exams, fine, plus the bands (6 to 1) which means precisely jack all but going on. They dont do the UAI. Thats right. Who does? The Universities, not only that but they have no one peeking over their shoulder to tell them right from wrong, and no inclination to tell the public what is going on in there. So here are the main beef points with how this system, and the Universities afterwards:

  • The University charges you to do this system every step of the way. From the beginning $18 fee to actually let you use their online services (accepting only a fraction of major credit cards) to apply to a university, right down to those lovely, re-named HECS fees that some of my teachers are still paying off.
  • If you pay upfront, not HECS, the course UAI is lower! This is the equivalent of a used car pay cash deal. The richer guys nose their way into the Unis, why the poorer ones bleed under new HECS fees after the Governments new budget more so than ever. My UAI was 78.10, and I couldnt get into Macquarie University for an Arts course. I know a guy who got 55.50, but cuz he pays upfront, hes In Like Flynn. Excellent message- if you are poor/ have parents who want to give you character (which I have nothing against mind), work harder damn you!
  • You are scaled to your classmates, to your school, to the state. Some exams warrant that if you screw up, you can only get equal or higher than the person below your ranking in the class gets. So, guys who worked hard for the exam will only receive something under the next guy. In same practice, if a ranked member of your class gets a horrible result, he is compared to the rest of the state, and takes your hard-earned mark down with him. Effectively, the smarter your classmates are, the better your UAI. You guys can tell me all about how fair it is, but when I do History Extension to the best of my ability and with a predicted E3-E4 result (as said by teacher) but because some of my classmates simply dont do anything during the exam and I get a 24 (that’s 1 mark from a pass) then I get a bit angsty, especially considering everything else.
  • Getting back to subject, here is the thing that really got me angry- the subjects are scaled. No, not the students. The actual subjects. So say you do Standard English, a guy in Advanced get an identical mark to yours. Your UAI is worse from a -5 gradient (I dont understand how it works nor do I care to). Not too intense right? I did History Extension and Agriculture among other things. History was scaled/taught incorrectly (although we did manage to do the entire syllabus but someone never studied hence dropped us like a sack of potatoes) and I got a E2 (equivalent of a band 2-3) and a 24-ish/50, which translates as being 48/100. I did Agriculture and did a fairly decent 75/100. The scaling was so intense that one of my Agriculture marks did not get counted and my History Extension did for the UAI! Think of all the poor guys dreaming of the seemingly unobtainable 90 UAI, unwittingly, heaven forbid, choosing subjects he/she can connect to because they enjoy it, and having that dream made impossible before they even put a pen to paper. Why dont they boost the difficulty of some subjects and cut the scaling?
  • The UAI is a percentile. Seems a strange issue, but think about it. Unlike systems like the A2s in Britain which relies on A-G grade, and hence a better appreciation for the boundries for not only a what a student needs to overcome but for universities to understand what is realistic demands from its applicants, the Australian system gives you a percentage that will set you at odds with everyone else. You could apply, and have the UAI beat, but if some guys have higher, and there isnt enough room, your outta there. No interviews for personal character and qualities, no merit for extra-curricular ( I guess it’s a mentality that it is on your own time) just a number and that is your whole school life. Just think about that. 12 long hard years that you have decided to pursue for whatever goals that you have- because trust me those who dont want a higher education left at year 10- is given at a nice, neat number.


In short, the Australian examination system and its results are appalling, and as a result I have a hard time justifying the courses themselves to certain friends of mine (who have their own blogs on wordpress). Apparently you get a free beer if you can show the barkeep your merit for a mystery mark (below 31 UAI). I guess that means everyone is a winner.


Looking back on this after a couple of years my thoughts on the matter havent changed. University is cool, the difference being to the exams they give is that a) you enjoy the course and b) you have about 4 exams, all of which are nice n spaced. Seems almost like now that Im here, the system is trusting me a bit more.  Enter the GPA… 


~ by freeze43 on August 26, 2008.

One Response to “The pains of HSC in NSW”

  1. I agree. The HSC and most of the rest of the school system seems to have evolved to serve a purpose vastly different from that of educating children and helping them into adult life. Paul Graham wrote a great essay ( in which he suggests one of the main functions of school is to keep otherwise restless and dangerous teenagers locked up and subdued. A lot of the crap you’re talking about, particularly the critical studies stuff in English, seems to be the result of some opportunistic idealists exploiting this set-up. It’s the perfect double cover: an almost-prison gets to pose as legitimate education, while the academics get a public forum and claque.

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