You’re doing coursework wrong: Why SACs are not exams

This post refers to the current 2016-2022 Study Design for Unit 3 and 4 VCE English.

SACs are not examinations. Sounds obvious, but in my experience, School Assessed Coursework in English (and most other curriculum areas) is treated as a pared back version of the end-of-year examination. In fact, it’s so rare to find any alternatives to the exam-style SAC that you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s what the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority is looking for.

It isn’t.

The argument for setting SACs as miniature exams is simple: it prepares students for the high-stakes end-of-year examination. After all, In VCE English the Unit 3 and 4 SACs combined are worth 50% of the overall study score, and the remaining 50% is entirely derived from the examination. Plus, because of the moderation of the SACs against the exam, the rank order determined by SACs is seemingly more important than the actual numeric grade of the SACs themselves. But there are problems with viewing SACs as exams.

SACS – not a standardised test
Photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

Treating SACs as exams devalues the writing process

In the English classroom, it’s often the text that takes centre-stage. In worst-case scenarios, it is the teacher’s knowledge of the text that dominates the classroom narrative. Under better circumstances, the student’s understanding is brought to the fore. But treating SACs as examinations devalues the important process of taking that knowledge and turning it into a response.

In the overview for each Unit of VCE English, the Study Design maintains that students, “use planning and drafting to test and clarify their ideas and editing for clear and coherent expression.” This is further articulated, for example, in the Key Skills for Area of Study 1, which states that this drafting process happens, “using feedback gained from individual reflection, discussion, and peer and teacher comments”.  In Unit 4, it is suggested that this stage of the writing process is undertaken, “through discussion and preparatory drafting”.

A SAC which is carried out under timed conditions, with an unseen topic (or a choice of two topics, mirroring the examination), cannot seriously make a claim to honouring the drafting process. Many schools use practice SACs to provide direct feedback to students. This is perfectly acceptable as practice, but it is not drafting. By definition, a draft is a preliminary version of the final product. It is not a complete essay written on another topic, for the purpose of checking overall knowledge of the text or the skills of essay writing.

Timed, blind SACs create an equity issue

Not every student has the capacity to complete an examination style response, let alone the three-in-three-hours required by the exam. The end-of-year examination is the great moderator, aligning the work carried out across the state in an assessment which is comparable and fairly assessed. However, treating SACs as a miniature exam creates an equity issue for those students who are unable to perform under exam conditions.

Students with mental health, cognitive or learning difficulties, may struggle with the pressure and the time requirement of the examination. Done correctly, the SACs provide these students an opportunity to achieve the highest mark possible. When SACs are carried out as examinations to anticipate the end-of-year rank, however, these students are effectively denied success. A timed and blind SAC may reveal which students will perform best under exam conditions, but it does not allow every student to demonstrate their best work.

An alternative

Taking as an example the first half of Outcome 1 in Units 1 and 3, students must “produce an analytical interpretation of a selected text.” Note again the lack of instruction from VCAA to conduct this response under timed conditions with an unseen prompt. This is our approach to this SAC:

  1. Study the text through student-centred close reading tasks
  2. Discuss options for topics, based on the themes, issues, ideas and values the students identify in the text.
  3. In some cases, the students write their own. In other instances, the teachers and students co-write, or the teachers write a list of topics based on the discussions in their classes.
  4. Provide students topics, and ample time to complete their study of the text, choose a topic, and prepare responses.
  5. Convene writing workshops for peer assessment and discussion of drafts.
  6. Run submitted student work through a plagiarism checker (TurnitIn, Google Classroom, or Ouriginal).
  7. Benchmark, moderate, and authenticate the work.

The process from start to finish can take up to eight weeks, during which time the text continues to be the focus of study. In terms of VCAA authentication processes, we stay true to the requirements of the Administrative Handbook:

“Drafting can remain a part of a teaching and learning strategy, and students may do preliminary drafting; however, drafts are not to be submitted to the teacher for the purpose of getting feedback on an incomplete task that will contribute to the total School-assessed Coursework score.”

The results? A collection of thoughtful, considered responses which demonstrate the fullest ability of every student. If a student performs well in the SACs under these conditions but suffers under the conditions of the examination, we trust that the exam moderation process will help them to gain the mark they deserve. We’ve also seen proof of the efficacy of this program: the first year we ran with this method, our achieved versus predicted VCE grade improved dramatically. During 2020 – after almost half a year of remote learning – our students produced the best English results we’d had in a decade.

Ultimately, this method of completing SACs stands as a reflection of our students’ ability to analyse and respond to texts, and not their ability to respond to the conditions of an examination at the end of the year.


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One response to “You’re doing coursework wrong: Why SACs are not exams”

  1. […] run senior English. We’ve abandoned TEEL, changed the way we provide assessment and feedback, and overhauled our school assessed coursework processes. And along the way, we tightened up our benchmarking and moderation processes to create I system […]

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