When roughly 60,000 years 12 students sit down to do their final English exam in New South Wales each year, they have no idea what texts they’ll be asked to analyse. Likewise, the authors of those texts are neither asked nor warned by the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) – an increasingly controversial policy as students sometimes take to social media to vent their post-exam frustration directly at them.
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Author Delia Falconer was just as surprised as anyone on Wednesday when she discovered that two pages of her book Sydney were in this year’s Higher School Certificate exam, being told by a friend who is also a teacher.
“I had no inkling whatsoever, which I think is kind of weird and inconsiderate,” Falconer told Guardian Australia.
“If you’re going to set someone’s work … the least you can do is get in touch with them or their publisher and let them know. I think that would be common courtesy.”
Falconer said she was not alone in being kept in the dark by NESA, which has a longstanding policy of not revealing what texts will appear in exams until after they have been sat. The authority says this prevents plagiarism and allows all students “an equal opportunity to study the texts independently”.
But many authors and publishers argue that it disadvantages those from poorer backgrounds who cannot afford private tutoring and puts unnecessary pressure on students who could benefit from knowing in advance which texts they will need to focus on.
NESA’s 2019 English papers, released on Wednesday, included an unseen prose fiction extract and an unseen poetry section – both of which are common features of the exam.
Falconer’s Sydney was one of four texts featured in the prose fiction section, alongside an extract from Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina graphic novel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists essay and an excerpt from Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal.
NESA said each text had been selected for its “potential to stimulate interesting and challenging discussions”.
“The texts in the HSC English examination are chosen to provide students with opportunities to engage with a wide range of ideas, styles, language features, representations and textual forms,” a spokesperson said.
But Falconer said it was “baffling” that her work had been selected alongside Catton’s – “one of the great novelists of our time” – and Adichie, who is “probably one of the most canonical feminist voices around at the moment”.
“I feel a bit like the poor cousin, to be honest. I feel a bit like, what the hell am I doing in there?” she said.
“It would have been nice to have some context for it … It just feels weird and random.”
Falconer is not the first author to express frustration at having their work included in the HSC without any warning or context. In 2016, when an extract from Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap was featured in the English exam, he told Guardian Australia he was “bemused and befuddled” by NESA’s decision.
He said many teachers and students had told him they found the extract –a young boy being hit by an adult at a barbecue – “quite confronting”.
“I’m not sure that 16- and 17-year-olds need to be confronted by violence to do well in their exams,” he said.
In 2017, when an extract from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was included in the exam, Australian author Tara June Winch tweeted that she was “gutted” her novel Swallow the Air had been passed over in favour of Lee’s classic novel.
Winch later told Fairfax Media she was concerned that works by First Nations authors were being “excluded” from the HSC.
NESA said it was committed to including a “broad range of Australian and international texts” in the exam and that a panel of experienced English teachers had selected all texts.
What do you think of NESA’s policy of not revealing which texts will appear in the HSC English exam? Is it fair, or does it disadvantage students from poorer backgrounds? Join the conversation below.