A standard response: exams need to end

I’m going to start this post with a very clear statement about my feelings regarding standardised tests and examinations: they are the most pointless, damaging practice that can be perpetrated by an educational facility. The reason I say this is because examinations make no sense pedagogically, logically or emotionally and I think we are doing students an enormous disservice by allowing examinations to dominate our practice so severely.

examinations make no sense pedagogically, logically or emotionally

Allow me to explain:

The only purpose an examination serves is to ‘get through’ large chunks of content in batches. It creates an easy method for teachers to gauge where their students are and how much they’ve managed to absorb over the course of study.

Except, they don’t really do that.

Granted, a standardised examination will provide an easy solution to assess a group of students in bulk. They all sit down at the same time and answer the same questions which are marked according to the same memorandum which produces a beautifully measurable set of data (usually observable in a shape that rhymes with hell, which I don’t think is coincidental). This data can then be used to tell people all sorts of wonderful things about literacy and numeracy and content knowledge which is, I’m sure, very important to someone. However, what this data doesn’t tell anyone is what students know. I apologise for the somewhat excessive emphasis, but I feel it is important to stress these points. A result of 75% on an examination is regarded as being very good, but what 25% was missed out? Wouldn’t it be worrying to go to a GP for an eye ailment only to know that he or she actually failed that section of the examination? His or her knowledge on knees is exceptional, but when it comes to eyes, he or she simply hits a blank every time.

data doesn’t tell anyone is what students know

I know I’m being flippant, but the point I’m making is that passing (or failing) an examination tells us very little about what someone actually knows. A result of 70% may demonstrate that the individual is unable to engage with the higher-order questions in the paper, or it may reveal that he or she has no idea about a sub-section or sub-sections of the work that were covered. Or does it reveal that he or she went blank during the examination, or that the section was taught badly, or that he or she was not in class on the day the work was taught? In terms of data validity, this list of options constitutes a lot of confounding variables, which, at least for me, casts a degree of doubt on how trustworthy examination results actually are.

Last week I attended a talk by Dr Lieb Liebenberg, who is the CEO of a company called IT Schools Innovation. His talk centred around the fact that the necessity of 21st Century Education is no longer something that is debatable, it is a given. Among the points he made was the observation that examinations only serve to demonstrate which students are good at writing them.

Some of you may be contesting my earlier statements regarding what factors are excluded in an examination result. You may argue that using examinations as a method of formative assessment provides insights which are are highly invaluable. This is a valid point. However, standardised tests and examinations are seldom used for formative assessment; they are the summative assessment meant to gauge the students’ grasp of an entire year or semester’s work. After the final examination is written, nothing else happens. Besides that, there are a myriad of better ways to do formal assessment, so why use something so complicated and stressful?

examinations only serve to demonstrate which students are good at writing them.

That brings me to my next point: stress.

Examinations result in intensely high levels of stress. Students are worried about what their parents will do if their grades aren’t high enough, they stress about whether they will be accepted into university or whether they will pass the year. Parents stress about their children studying enough and about them passing and getting jobs. Teachers stress about setting papers on time, marking loads and, in some really unfortunate cases, they stress about their students’ results having an impact on their income when they are linked to performance evaluation. Administrators stress about their schools’ images and about keeping parents happy and governments stress about being able to tell taxpayers that their money is being well spent. That’s a lot of stress, and it ripples out across all of education. This is not a phenomenon limited to matriculating students or final year university students, it happens at all levels where examinations are written.

To me, it is absolutely horrifying to hear about students in Grade 7 having panic attacks about examinations. GRADE 7! At that age, the only thing they should be worried about is whether they’re going to be able to afford a movie AND popcorn with their pocket money, not about a test. Stress has severely negative health consequences and it can cloud clear thinking. A stressed student cannot think properly and this will affect what he or she writes in an examination (yet another confounding variable). A bad experience only serves to deepen the anxiety which has a knock-on effect after a few years.

A stressed student cannot think properly

And how can they not be stressed? Just about all examinations take place in rooms that are laid out like prison yards, where utter silence is mandated and where the rows are patrolled by guard-like teachers (who are dying small deaths every minute, I might add—no one likes invigilating). The pressure is immense and it’s no wonder so many people crack under it. Those who don’t, well, they are the ones I spoke about earlier: they’re good at writing examinations.

Examinations also have a ripple effect when it comes to teaching. More and more we are seeing that teaching is gearing itself towards standardised testing. If this is not a case of the tail wagging the dog, then I don’t know what is. This is particularly the case in countries where school funding and teacher salaries are linked to performance in standardised tests—a practice which is utterly abhorrent and which is producing a system of assessment-obsessed zombie students and teachers. I spoke in an earlier post about students not caring about work unless it is for marks. I believe it’s administrators’ and teachers’ obsession with assessment that produces this attitude and exam-focused mindset.

Another issue which I feel makes the case for examinations weaker is how divorced they are from reality.

In no working environment will anyone ever come up to you and say, “Jenkins, you need to write down everything you can remember about the Tudors in three hours. Sit over at that table and don’t you dare talk to anyone or use any technology or you’ll be fired. Your time starts now.” It’s just not going to happen. No one works in isolation anymore, and there’s very little we have to have memorised in order to function. Thus, examinations do not teach any useful skill at all.

No one works in isolation anymore

Finally, examinations are becoming increasingly unsustainable to carry out properly. More and more students need accommodations which range from using computers, to needing separate venues with amanuensis and this puts pressure on staffing and on providing spaces for these examinations to take place. The whole school has to grind to a halt while everyone enters panic mode: teachers are desperately trying to get batches of marking done before the next wave hits, students are panicking about not having enough time to revise for their next paper (because timetables are getting increasingly condensed), and the whole place is filled with ratty, overworked, overtired individuals who are hating everything about the experience.

It’s crazy. And yet just about every school in every country is ruled by the iron fist of standardised examinations. These are the same schools that usually declare themselves proud celebrators of individuals’ unique talents

The solution to this problem, I think, is to go back to what the purpose of education is meant to be: prepare citizens for active, meaningful participation in the world.

An examination does not do this.

What I think would be a good method to use would be to create open tasks that require students to take time to think about what they’ve learnt in a particular course or class and then to respond thoughtfully to a challenging problem. I think it was Jamie McKenzie who said that if your students can google the answer to a question you’ve posed, it’s not a good question. I wholeheartedly agree with this and I think it presents us with an opportunity to go beyond boring, standardised examinations.

Imagine being able to ask your students something like:

Over the course of the year, we have studied various works of literature. What, in your opinion, do these works of literature have to say about what it means to be a human being? Your response can be in any format you wish, and you are encouraged to use as many different kinds of media to produce an engaging, thought-provoking response. Feel free to consult any source you wish.

After submitting your response, you will have a conversation about it with a panel of teachers.

You have three weeks.

Note: If you feel that there is another topic or question you would like to explore, you have two days to make an appointment to discuss this with your teacher.

As a teacher, I get incredibly excited by something like this, and I think it would tell me a lot more about a student’s understanding than ‘Identify the figure of speech and discuss its effectiveness’ would.

I know I’m not alone in thinking this: Ken Robinson has spoken about this issue too, and he’s quite knowledgeable about the matter. I hope others who read this are in agreement too, because then we can start to build a movement against examinations. They need to be stopped so that we can move education in the direction it needs to go, which is not standardised at all, but rather one that encourages exploration, engagement and critical thinking.

Bring on the revolution.

Cover image modified from https://www.flickr.com/photos/comedynose/3571102858