Cryptic English exam question leaves Australian school students bewildered

What would you write as your answer?
What would you write as your answer? Photo credit: Julie Paschkis/Getty.

It's been a long time since I've attempted any kind of school exam, and that's a good thing, if the state of this high school English question is anything to go by. 

Tens of thousands of Aussie students were reportedly left baffled by a question in the English HSC exam across NSW on Tuesday, which asked them to interpret a piece of art by US artist Julie Paschkis. 

Students were presented with the image of a man rowing a boat through an ocean of unusual words, using a pencil as an oar. 

According to the Daily Mail, they were then asked to explain how the image used a variety of language forms and features to best communicate creative ideas.

The artwork that left English students baffled.
The artwork that left English students baffled. Photo credit: Julie Paschkis via. The Daily Mail.

But many students found it a particularly confusing exercise. 

"The words were so odd - some of them I had no idea what they even meant, some more simple words like sun and honey were very, very random but some of them I had never even seen before," a Year 12 student from Bradfield Senior College told the Daily Telegraph.

"In class we learned about how to dissect images… It was confusing being given a picture - do we talk about the features like colour, or do we solely talk about words because that was what was in the question?"

But the artist said she liked that schools were teaching students there wasn't just one right answer to questions, allowing "room for open-ended exploration". 

"I like the idea that things are more open-ended," Paschkis told the Telegraph.

"I love language and I feel like when you're really familiar with a word you go right to the meaning but when you don't know a word sometimes you hear the sound of it or what it looks like, it can take you to other places."

Kiwi high school students will sit their NCEA exams in November, but already are feeling the pinch of the COVID-19 pandemic on their overall results. Earlier this month Qualifications Authority figures showed a major drop in internal NCEA credits in Northland and Auckland - 18-20 percent fewer than at the same time last year.