WATESOL Position Statement (December 2012)

WATESOL is deeply concerned about the accessibility of WACE exams for students who speak English as an additional language or dialect (EAL/D). EAL/D learners who have good learning area knowledge are being disadvantaged under the current system, where plain English use appears not to have been seriously considered in the WACE exam vetting process.

Analysis of WACE papers from 2011-2012 reveal a range of barriers to comprehension that impact learners’ ability to demonstrate their understanding of subject matter (especially in the Sciences). These barriers are linguistic (choices of vocabulary and grammatical constructs), sociolinguistic (how language is used) and sociocultural (in what cultural spaces language is used).

In a recent letter, Allan Blagaich, SCSA CEO, stated that:

The Authority’s assessment requirements and examination policies currently require that all students, regardless of language background, are assessed under the same conditions in both school-based assessment tasks and the WACE examinations. WACE examination panels are requested to review the language of each examination in terms of accessibility.

Following consultation with all Australasian Curriculum, Assessment and Certification Authorities (ACACA), it is accepted practice that dictionaries and glossaries are not used in examinations. (Letter to Khalin Driver, WATESOL President, 14/11/12)

WATESOL endorses the above-mentioned practice of reviewing the language of each examination in terms of accessibility and suggests these panels are given assistance to do this from a suitably qualified expert in additional language acquisition.

The current linguistic barriers in exam papers are unfairly biased towards native speakers of Standard Australian English and students whose life experiences allow them the required comprehension of the questions and of the cultural assumptions behind them.

WATESOL believes that as dictionary access is not permissible under special provisions rulings, other solutions need to be found. For example:

1) WATESOL believes that a best practice WACE exam-writing process with multiple checks should include collaboration and consultation with teachers of English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) to ensure Plain English is used.

This collaborative process between Physics and English teachers is already in place for TISC’s “WA Universities’ Preparatory Program Exams 2012”. It is also standard practice in WAMSE and NAPLAN test development and in New South Wales senior year examination.

2) Glossaries or footnotes could be provided to all students, where a non-subject-specific term is unfamiliar (recent examples include “scull” (in the sense of rowing), “build-up” (of calcium) or “marina”).

3) EAL/D students are not given sufficient time to demonstrate their subject knowledge and understanding in WACE examinations (such as Chemistry and Physics) compared with native English speakers.

More time could be given to those English language learners who have been accepted as eligible for enrolment in EAL/D Courses in Year 12.

There is an additional negative flow-on effect of this for native-English-speaking students at schools like Cyril Jackson Senior Campus with mixed EAL/D and native-English-speaking subject cohorts. The native-English-speaking students have their school-based marks moderated downward merely for being a part of such a cohort.

For this reason, if the Authority acts to improve the use of English in WACE exams, thereby improving EAL/D students’ chances of more accurately demonstrating their subject knowledge, it will ultimately benefit all students in schools with high percentages of EAL/D learners and make the process more equitable.

The ‘Melbourne Declaration’ – particularly in the sections ‘Promoting world-class curriculum and assessment’ and ‘Improving educational outcomes for Indigenous youth and disadvantaged young Australians, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds’ – highlights the need for educators to improve outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and furthermore, provide fair and reliable assessment for all Australians. We have a responsibility as educators and assessors to ensure these outcomes for all students.