Exams Will Never Measure A Student's Worth

The exams regulator Ofqual has decided to tighten up the GCSE exams in four different subjects in order to stop children from simply learning the test and encourage them to get to grips with the entire course. But this approach attacks the wrong end of the problem, if kids are still pressured into trying to define themselves by their grades alone and teachers need to justify their skills by getting high marks then subverting the tests will always be a part of school life.

There is undoubtedly a problem with the exam system, learning the test is only the most benign form of it. A study of American children found that of a representative sample of 40,000 kids, 59% of them had cheated on a test. It’s not just limited to the naughty kids either, 55% of honors students had cheated too. The study suggested that this culture of cheating began the “death of a thousand cuts” of a student’s honesty, with cheaters in school being more likely to cheat and lie in the workplace too.

It would be quite easy to put this down to the defective morality of our so called “broken generation, I think it has more of an insidious root. Standardised testing is useful to employers and further educators as a mark of a student’s worth, they can sort out their AAA rated high-flyers from the AA dross. But none of the skills that are actually tested in SATs, GCSEs, A-levels or to a large extent even degree level exams are the ones that will be most useful in the future. The exams actually test the least interesting and least useful parts of education. They may be young, but kids aren’t stupid, if they don’t believe in the worth of an exam then you’ll never make them care about it.

Then teachers have to over emphasise how critical these exams to compensate. You then have the situation where students can see the inherent unfairness and arbitrary nature of being judged based on only a few hours of their life, on skills they can’t see the worth of, while they’re being told the exams are desperately important to their future success. It’s no wonder that there is a pressure to get ahead in any way you can.

I see a fraction of the stress exams cause from tutoring GCSE sciences. Teaching is good fun, getting across the underlying concepts, exploring the issues that come up and making the course relevant, is interesting for me and (I hope) my students. When it comes to the tests things take a nose-dive, you switch gears, put away the fun stuff and get out the specification provided by the exam board. Distilling a two year course into a 40 minute exam becomes an exercise of learning the buzzwords that will earn you easy marks. Teachers too hate having to dedicate weeks and weeks of actual learning time to drilling facts into student’s heads.

This isn’t a problem of the structure of an individual exam, but of testing as a whole. Learning a test simply isn’t learning, and if we’re telling student’s it is, then we can’t be surprised when so many immediately give up on their self progression the second they leave school. Those that do carry on, through college and university, become so indoctrinated that they leave with their 2:1 and think “Finally I’ve proven my worth! Hire me!” Any employer will tell you it’s not true, but we continue to emphasise just how important exams are.

Framing student’s success only in terms of their grades is a terrible way to organise an education system. It leashes the smart kids to material they find boring and irrelevant, and punishes the less bright kids with lower grades which only contribute to their disillusionment. The skills we need to encourage are exactly the ones that can’t be measured on an exam, or at least nothing like the breed of exams we have in place at the moment.

First of all there should be fewer exams, the more you have the less time you can spend teaching more engaging material. Exams should be designed to show problem solving, creativity and analysis rather than learning by rote. The material should always be framed in terms of what makes it relevant to the student’s life instead of arbitrary learning. And teachers should be given the freedom to teach how they feel is most appropriate rather than prescriptive one-size-fits-all lesson plans.

Unfortunately, the trend seems to be going in exactly the opposite direction. Many exam boards are now offering three year GCSE courses instead of the standard two. It’s hoped that this change will bump up exam marks by providing more continuity to the course. What it’s likely to do is dedicate even more time to learning the test. I fear Ofqual’s tweaks to the english literature, maths, geography and history courses will only encourage students to cover the whole curriculum by adding an extra 50 or so facts to learn.

It’s hard to deny that there’s a problem in our schools, but trying to test our way out of it is only going to make things worse.

Photo by David Hawgood of Geograph.org.uk

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