The head of English at one of Sydney's most prestigious schools has slammed yesterday's Higher School Certificate English exam as too difficult for most students in NSW and in danger of being reduced to a speed-reading test.
Babs Helleman, head of English at the King's School, Parramatta, said the reading required by students sitting the exam was too long and the questions too sophisticated for average students.
Standard and advanced English students sat a common exam paper yesterday.
Students who sat the exam were given four extracts to read. An extract from Dionne Brand's memoir, A Map to the Door of No Return: Notes to Belonging, was 1½ pages long, while an extract from Peter Jankowsky's Myself Passing By was one page long.
Students are not permitted to use a pen or highlighter during their 10 minutes of reading time in the exam.
"My brighter students said they found it quite demanding," Ms Helleman said. "An average student – and this is the whole state here – they would not be able to read that much text in reading time.
"They are also not allowed to pick up a highlighter during reading time so they have to keep going back to the text.
"They might have had four extracts to read in the exam in the past but they have never had them of this length."
She said the questions were too tough for a typical student and included: "Analyse how imagery is used to capture the author's intense experience returning to his hometown" or "In your view which TWO texts most effectively explore how feelings of belonging and not belonging may shift in time? Justify your view with reference to TWO texts".
"I think the idea behind setting a question that requires students to think and not regurgitate a set answer is a really good one but it's got to be within the elements of their reach," Ms Helleman said.
"I felt it was a very high-level paper. For the top group of the state it would have been fine but for the whole state I felt it was a quite difficult one for them to do."
She said the amount of information students were expected to analyse in the two-hour exam reduced it to little more than a speed-reading test.
"We chose the poet Emily Dickinson as our set text. Her work is quite thoughtful and philosophical and it's not suited to a rushed response," she said.
Yesterday's English exam was the first of 117 papers to be sat by more than 70,000 students during the HSC, which finishes on November 9.
Jennifer Taylor, head of English at selective high school North Sydney Girls High, said she felt the exam was challenging but fair.
"Every student could access that paper," she said. "Its focus was very clearly in the rubrik."
Steve Stoneham, dean of language arts at The Scots College, described the exam as difficult, particularly for students unfamiliar with problem solving under pressure.
"While the English HSC examination could be criticised for its asking students to write about more than one text in detail mostly from memory in forty minutes using a ballpoint pen, so long as there must be examinations, it would be nice that the examinations could distinguish those students able to think on their feet and write clearly with supporting evidence," he said.
"This examination did precisely that. Many schools and students will not have liked it. It would be out of their comfort zone."
Themie Oud, head of English at St Andrews Cathedral School, agreed the exam was lengthy but said it was fair.
"There was a lot to be done in two hours but overall the students seemed happy - there weren't too many tears," she said.
The Department of Education said it could not comment because it is a matter for the Board of Studies.
A spokeswoman from the Board of Studies NSW said English teachers had described the exam as "fair, straightforward, accessible and challenging in all the right ways".
"The questions were entirely consistent with what teachers and students should expect in the HSC English examination. No major issues were identified. Teachers also thought that the paper would discriminate very well. This is what effective examinations do."
Yesterday's English exam was the first of 117 papers to be sat by more than 70,000 students during the HSC, which finishes on November 8.
The English exams tomorrow will be two separate papers - standard English modules and advanced English modules.
Correction: In the original version of this story, it was reported that the Department of Education declined to comment.