OPINION: Queensland is a case study of what happens when we raise the assessment stakes

Students working on laptops / ipads at desks.

by Julie Arnold

This article originally appeared in the Wordsworth journal of the English Teachers Association of Queensland Inc. (ETAQ).

Four years on, it’s time to reflect on how English teaching in Queensland has changed and what that’s meant for students.

School is hard. And it’s getting harder. Certainly, that is the view of the many Queensland parents (and some teachers) who responded to the advocacy push of local authors Rebecca Sparrow, Madonna King and Justin Coulson last year. Testing Times At School highlighted the worry and frustration of families who report high levels of student anxiety, a tendency to either overwork or to disengage, difficulties supporting teenage children to navigate complex assessment tasks, and pathway restrictions when students do not achieve high enough grades.

It would be easy to dismiss these views as based on anecdote or a misunderstanding of the senior assessment system and its changes. But to take this view would be to discount the experiences of very important people: students.

In many ways, Queensland is a perfect case study of what happens when we raise the assessment stakes. New syllabus documents and the introduction of the ATAR followed a comprehensive review of tertiary entrance processes by the Australian Council for Educational Research. It represented a significant shift in procedure and, I would argue, culture, for students and teachers. That shift is worth understanding in its historical context.

A brief history lesson
For 50 years, since 1971, Queensland rejected centrally designed, senior public examinations in favour of a system based on internal assessments designed and conducted by teachers and consensus-moderated between schools (Maxwell, 2010). Those initial reforms emphasised that assessment should be school-based, drawing on agreed curriculum standards (Cumming, 2020).

Following the 1987 Pitman review, a scaling test – the Queensland Core Skills Test – was introduced for statistical moderation of the results of students seeking a university entrance ranking; however, year 12 students still completed their QCE in a “system featuring externally moderated school based assessment” (QCAA, 2020). In other words, assessment designed, administered, and marked at school.

Find a more comprehensive history lesson from QCAA here: 1.1 Background to the QCE system | Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (qcaa.qld.edu.au)

For the 2019/2020 cohort, Queensland introduced a mix of school-based and external examinations. In English, English as an Additional Language, and Literature there are four equally weighted, numerically scored tasks, including one External Exam. Essential English has one externally set exam. By international standards Queensland still has a lot of school-based assessment. However, even this seemingly modest shift to a more traditional approach to senior assessment had immediate and potentially profound effects on students and teachers.


Did English get harder? No. And yes.

There are fewer assessment items and, though they are slightly longer, they’re not inherently more difficult to do. Students in English have historically been required to write analytically, speak persuasively, and create imaginative pieces. Conditions haven’t changed all that much. Year 12 students have 4 or 5 weeks’ notice for their assignments, and they can still access teacher feedback on a single draft. The assessment objectives and performance standards are remarkably similar too—a circumstance that made the transition to the new system less onerous for English teachers than it might have been.


Previous Senior English (sample*) Assessment in General English (from 2019/20)
1.         Multimodal analysis (spoken)

2.         Narrative (assignment)

3.         Seen exam

4.         Feature article (assignment)

5.         Persuasive speech

6.         Unseen exam (set by school)

1.    Persuasive speech

2.    Comparative literary essay (assignment)

3.    Narrative responding to literature (seen exam over consecutive lessons)

4.    External examination (set by QCAA)

* Tasks varied between schools and could be as many as 8. All tasks were designed at school level and reviewed during central moderation processes, after their administration. * Tasks 1-3 are written by schools using syllabus prescriptions, endorsed by QCAA, then administered and marked by the school.


Students don’t have to read more books than they used to, unless they select Literature. One could argue that school choice about texts is constrained by the Prescribed Text List and that might make it more difficult for schools to meet the needs and interests of their cohort. However, I think it is equally likely that this innovation has supported many schools to offer more diverse text selections to meet the needs of their cohorts.

So, if it isn’t the texts and it isn’t the tasks, what is it? I think two things make senior English ‘harder’.  


The first thing is the stakes. Each task is more consequential. Senior English prior to 2019/20 was a folio system. Evidence of student learning was collected for a larger number and wider variety of performances across Year 12. The folio system allowed students to draw on their strengths and demonstrate continuous improvement. Poor performance in one piece did not necessarily spell doom for the overall result, even for very high performing students. Similarly, year 10 students with weaker skills in English and literacy benefitted from access to a system concerned with where they arrived at the end of their learning in year 12. In other words, they had more time to learn (even though paradoxically they had less time for each task) and less pressure on each task.

In hindsight, we paved over an assessment system that prioritised learning over measuring performance and put up a replacement that does the opposite.

This sounds like a pretty harsh evaluation. After all, teachers and our QCAA English team have worked hard to maintain a learning culture. We are fortunate to have access to outstanding professional learning opportunities and a sensible syllabus design that drew on many of the strengths of the previous documents. Still, the consequences of system change are undeniable. Let’s zero in on just one aspect of the teaching and learning process – feedback – from the point of view of the student experience of assessment in senior.

Feedback for learning? Or feedback as a condition for measurement? Feedback is widely acknowledged as one of the most powerful things we can do to help students learn. It improves confidence and self-motivation, actual task performance, and life-long learning (Black & William, 2009; Brooks, et al. 2021; Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Sadler, 2010). Setting aside issues related to quality feedback and how well they attend to it, written feedback from the teacher is the most highly valued by students, and thus the most closely attended to, of the feedback modes.

Prior to the 2019/2020 implementation, students had access to teacher feedback on drafts of 4-6 summative tasks in year 12. Though there were significant variations between schools, students might have had even more feedback on their year 11 pieces. Syllabus guidelines suggested teachers offered feedback on up to 2 drafts of processed (non-exam) work. That’s a lot of feedback.

Now, students have access to teacher feedback on 2 summative tasks (Internal Assessments 1 and 2). It has been common practice to apply similar feedback policies in year 11; that is, only one feedback opportunity on each of 2 pieces. That’s a lot less feedback.

There are of course other ways students participate in feedback cycles and it is not surprising that schools have been exploring the pedagogical power of feedback practices. But there’s no escaping the raw numbers here: on the feedback they will likely pay the most attention to, a graduating student of English in Queensland in 2018/2019 might have received 8-12 significant pieces. A graduating student of English now will get 4.


The second thing is what I’ll call ‘the washback effect’. Washback is the tendency to pull assessment practices down from Year 12 into Year 11, Year 10 and so on. Washback is at once completely understandable, inevitable even, and at the same time worth robust criticism.

Schools want students to be safe and failure now carries more immediate and harsh consequences. One common washback response intended to protect students is to rehearse tasks with younger students that they will encounter when they get to Year 12. It makes sense to offer “opportunities in Units 1 and 2 to experience and respond to the types of assessment they will encounter in Units 3 and 4” and one interpretation of this syllabus advice is that year 11 students will do more-or-less the same task in the formative units as the summative ones. As sensible as this seems, the effect is to prioritise the later curriculum over developmentally appropriate learning; planned poorly, it might amount to subsuming Unit 3/4 priorities into Units 1 and 2.

We all know that assessment washback of this kind in Queensland hasn’t been limited to the Senior programs. So-called ‘backwards mapping’ has resulted in significant changes to how English is taught and assessed in 7-10. Narrowing of tasks to what will prepare them for year 12 reduces time for authentic, flexible learning and assessment (Hardy, 2018) and may place significant demands on students and their teachers to tackle complex ideas early. If tasks and marking schema are introduced early, year 10s may be effectively taught and assessed against the year 12 curriculum. Without careful attention to the age-appropriate curriculum to which they are entitled, students risk missing important developmental stepping stones.

These effects were probably not anticipated and prepared for well enough by schools, despite sincere efforts by the QCAA in cautioning teachers in their professional learning campaigns about drawing down Year 12 assessment processes into other grade levels.

Further, although the consequences of raising the stakes and washback are experienced by all students, they are more keenly felt by some students. Students with disability, impairment and/or medical conditions, or who experience other circumstances that may be a barrier to their performance, may not have personal and cultural resources to overcome the additional barriers these new practices have created. For them – and I would argue all students – rushing through fundamental skills and knowledge in years 9 and  10 to focus on abstract ideas in Knowledge Application misses opportunities for students to reach their potential. Raising the stakes and washback are causes for serious consideration around issues of fairness and equity.


What are teachers doing?

At the heart of ‘all this’ is students and their teachers (and their parents and their schools) doing their collective best, and with considerable support from the QCAA, ETAQ and other bodies, to adapt to changing circumstances. English teachers have worked hard and our students have done well. They are graduating in similar numbers and moving on to entering TAFE and university via various pathways.


Where to from here?

With the implementation of a new Australian Curriculum on the horizon and some distance from the worst disruptive effects of COVID, we may be able to find space for reflection and professional learning that prioritises:

  • the entitlement of students to access the curriculum at their age-appropriate level
  • knowing about how assessment practices, including the things we do in class to prepare students for the future, are experienced by students
  • the joy and the point of learning in the discipline.

Change and renewal can be a good thing and there’s much to be celebrated still in Queensland’s assessment landscape. But reflection and resistance – exercising our professional wisdom and agency – are important too.



Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 5–31. https://doi.org/ 10.1007/s11092-008-9068-5.

Brooks, C., Burton, R., van der Kleij, F., Carroll, A., Olave, K. and Hattie, J. (2021) From fixing the work to improving the learning: An initial evaluation of a professional learning intervention using a new student-centred feedback model. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 68(28), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.stueduc.2020.100943

Cumming, J. J. (2020). Senior secondary school assessment and standard-setting in Queensland, Australia: social context and paradigmatic change. Assessment in education : principles, policy & practice, 27(2), 160-177. https://doi.org/10.1080/0969594X.2019.1684877

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112. https://doi.org/10.3102/003465430298487. Ian Hardy (2018) Governing teacher learning: understanding teachers’ compliance with and critique of standardization, Journal of Education Policy, 33:1, 1-22, https://doi.org/10.1080/02680939.2017.1325517

Maxwell, G. (2010). Moderation of Student Work by Teachers, Elsevier, pp. 457-463.

QCAA. (2020). The State of Queensland (Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority) Annual Report 2019–20.

Sadler, D. R. (2010). Beyond feedback: Developing student capability in complex appraisal. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(5), 535–550. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602930903541015.


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