What would happen if we abolished traditional exams?

Finland is fashionable among educationalists because it is seen as proof that you can have a great education system without neoliberal high-stakes testing and accountability. Finland gained this status on the back of its PISA results and even though these results have significantly declined since the start of the century, Finland remains as popular as ever. Pundits laud its progressiveness.

So if anywhere has avoided exams, it’s Finland, right? Wrong. It’s true that Finland doesn’t have the number of standardised tests that characterise Australia, England or the U.S. but it’s worth noting that students in the academic stream at the end of High School sit a set of six-hour exams. Tim Oates explains:

“As for “no tests” – all Finns understand the importance of doing well in the Finnish Abitur –the university-oriented ‘finishing’ examination taken by 19-year-olds. The academic pathway (upper secondary to university) is considered of higher esteem than the vocational pathway at 16, into which over 40% of pupils go. On scrutiny, the Abitur examinations are just like English A Levels, although pupils may study seven or eight subjects, they only take four subjects – one of these in native language. The other subjects are just like A Levels – six hour, nationally-moderated tests in individual subjects. And these exams have been in place, and relatively unchanged in form, since the end of the 19th century.”


So if Finland can’t have an education system without traditional exams, where can? Is it even possible? What would it look like?

I had an interesting discussion on Twitter about this. Chris Woldhuis was at a conference where Eric Mazur was speaking. It appears as if Mazur made a claim, consistent with previous comments on the topic, that, “Cheating in an assessment is not a problem with the students, it is a problem with the assessment.” I disputed this and Chris and I had a discussion. Chris’s view was that if it is possible to cheat then the form of assessment is not right – we’re not asking students to solve real problems. My view was that any form of assessment is vulnerable to cheating and so I asked Chris for an example of the sort of problem he had in mind. He suggested, “Students run a cafe, make a profit.”

If we moved away from exams in favour of assessing projects of this kind then this would cause a number of practical problems. How can every student do something like run a cafe? Would the cafe be run as a team? If so, how can we be sure that everyone is playing an equal role? Perhaps we don’t really mind whether they are playing equal roles but, if so, how can we form any sort of assessment of the learning of individuals?

You might respond by asking me why I want to judge the students. And that’s a fair call. As a teacher I’m mainly interested in formative assessment – where is this student right now and what is needed for improvement? This doesn’t require us ranking the students relative to each other.

But I’m not the reason that we have formal exams. The Finnish Abitur does not exist to provide formative evidence for teachers. It’s not the teachers that want a summary of individual performance, it’s universities and employers.

If we abandoned examinations, universities would be left with problems such as how to select students for prestigious and challenging courses. In Australia, we have already moved away from Year 12 exams as the basis of entry into medicine. Presumably, these tests don’t give enough information to medical schools and so students have to study for something called the ‘Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admission Test’ (UMAT) in addition to their other exams.

If we moved to the use of projects to assess high school students then one consequence might be a mushrooming of such parallel tests. How much time would students then invest in running their cafes?

Suppose we took a Stalinist stance and forbade universities from asking students to sit such tests. Instead, we required universities to use the authentic projects completed in school. Would we then have a fair system based upon real and authentic assessment?


If something important like university entrance depends upon your ability to run a cafe and make a profit then the possibilities for gaming this system are endless. Wealthy parents could, for instance, buy a lot of coffee. The authentic nature of the project means that it is not sealed-off from the outside world and so our rich kids could perhaps pay for advice from successful cafe owners, accountants, advertising creatives and so on.

We can extend this to arguments made by Mazur himself:

“Let’s mimic more real life in our assessment practice. If you look at students taking an assessment, they’re set out in rows, separated by a gap and isolated from any source of information. Once you get your diploma, you never face that situation again. At work you can call whoever you want, you can google anything, yet this is how we assess students. So we should let people talk to each other, we should let people work together. We consider it cheating in that setting but not cheating when they are doing their jobs. So why create this artificial environment?”

Why not create an artificial environment? What’s so great about real-life?

It is true that, at work, you can call whoever you want, but if you call someone for advice then you are going to have to pay them. Googling the way to solve a mathematics problem might be of some benefit but it would be far more advantageous to have an expert instructor on the other end of Skype who you can work through the problem for you. So if you can afford it then that’s what you will do. Which is certainly an authentic replication of the inequalities of the real world, if that’s what you want.

Traditional exams are, in fact, far more equitable. Students sit these tests naked of their privilege and have to solve problems on their own rather than have this done for them. No, I’m not arguing that this takes away the advantages of the rich completely. They still have access to learning resources that poorer students don’t have. But I can’t think of a better way of minimising these advantages than with a traditional test.

When you also take account of the fact that exams are subject to less bias than the kind of teacher assessment you would need for a project, the equity case is overwhelming.


20 Comments on “What would happen if we abolished traditional exams?”

  1. jennifer stephenson says:

    And in teaching tou often have to make rapid decisions – if you don;t have the knowledge until you go and consult someone or something, you may be lost

  2. ijstock says:

    I think the problem is not exams – as you say, they are the best way of showing what an individual is capable of unaided. It’s the expectations we now have of what the exam system is meant to show, and the stakes for which they are being done. That. and the whole climate of seeing them as a gaming exercise which has arisen as a result.

  3. Tempe says:

    If you want to know what would happen if you abolish external exams for senior schooling you only need to look at Queensland. Queensland apparently has one of the subjective, radical marking systems in the world.External exams were abolished about 40 yrs ago and replaced with testing within schools and inquiry-based project assignments, including in mathematics.

    An inquiry in 2014 finally convinced govt. that this system wasn’t the most fair or reliable and in 2018 we should finally see the return of external exams counting for 25-50% of the overall mark. For a very interesting read and blog site on the issue I recommend Platoqld http://www.platoqld.com/

    • Tara says:

      this is so scary Tempe…to allow something like this to happen. I hope Qld might see some improvements now that they have returned to their senses. Whereas we are going the same way that Qld went…all in the name of progress..?!?

      Tx for the link; i’ll read it this morning.

      • Tempe says:

        It is terrible, Tara. I didn’t realise how bad until I came across this blog site dedicated to raising awareness. I must have been one of the last to go through senior with some external exams.

        As Greg has rightly pointed out the wealthier profit from this situation as it leaves the door open to cheating, as assignments can be done by educated, willing parents/tutors.

        Unfortunately Qld still has a long way to go. Marking is done using letters rather than numbers, making it very vague and very tiresome and laborious for teachers doing the marking. There is nothing equitable in the Qld assessment system at all.

      • Tempe says:

        Apparently, Qld was once the top State in Aust. in terms of academic achievement. That was when we had external exams. Today it is down the bottom.

      • Tara Houle says:

        Thanks for that Tempe. The information provided gives a clearer illustration that this really is a worldwide phenomenon. The plato blog is great, but it could be written by a number of parents here in Canada, given their concerns, and what changes they’d like implemented by the education system.

        I completely agree all with what you have said here. And yes, as Greg has pointed out, these types of assessing is absolutely for the higher class, and for allowing a great deal of cheating to occur. It’s weird how those that require a decent education the most, to help them in life, are those who are being denied this basic opportunity. As one teacher said to me about the changes coming to BC regarding the cancellation of provincial exams, does that mean his 30 yr experience in Prince George, is equal to that of a 1 yr teacher in Mission, BC? Are parents just supposed to ok with this type of assessment and just take their word for it, that their kids are doing okay? If that’s the case, why do I have parents emailing me for tutors when they get the results back from provincial math assessments every year…which indicate their kids ARENT doing okay?

        I don’t know if the private system is any better than the public one, but at least it might hold the public system a bit more accountable and offer parents better options for their tax dollars. Our school system is broken. Time to start over by offering the basics and a common sense way of grading our kids so we know where improvements need to be made. And just allow teachers to do their job, rather than having this top down approach mandated by the educationists.

  4. Iain Murphy says:

    Exams represent fair when comparing like conditions, but they are not equitable. Socioeconomic factors play a huge part and are well documented across the states due to the amount of time students have to study vs work or care or travel, the value home life places on education and the Language skills of the reader. However, no other form of assessment can really offer a better option to combat these issues.

    What I think is a big factor is the students skills at doing a test. For example some students are far better at determining good and poor multiple choice answers dramatically increasing their success even if they are guessing. Some have this naturally and others develop through practice but many don’t. These students can be incredibly interested and/or skilled at the topic and never demonstrate it in tests/exams and should have other opportunities to demonstrate their skills.

    Finally, how much time is spent teaching these ‘academic’ skills and creating an environment where grades matter, both of which prove to be false in the ‘real world’. I find it incredibly difficult to provide useful feedback on effective study to test results for students as part of that process is hidden from the classroom. In difference group work and/or research the feedback can be about the work which will lead to future improvements.

    Nice research for this article, to often these debates are boiled down to the 5-second answer and they are way more complex.

  5. Tara Houle says:

    One of the bigger arguments made for having exams, are that parents want them. Education is supposed to be thought of as a profession, and as such, professional standards are imposed to ensure the system is working. One of these tenets are exams.

    Oh well. The “experts” in British Columbia know best though. As of this year, our kids will only be mandated to take a provincial English exam at some point in high school,, and Maths in Gr.10 http://vancouversun.com/news/local-news/fewer-provincial-exams-more-in-class-assessment-in-b-c-starting-next-year. The teachers union led the charge in asking that all other provincial exams be cancelled, and in keeping with our open ended curriculum about to be fully implemented this Fall, all other education partners agreed with them.

    The subjective nature of assessing our children has become a joke in this province. One must wonder why they need to go to school at all.

  6. David says:

    I wonder though, if the intent of exams is to provide an assessment of a student’s preparation for college, could this not be done with other something other than an exam? In the US, there is a growing number of institutions which are making the SAT/ACT college entrance exams optional–instead the schools use a more holistic approach to evaluate applicants and may ask for evidence beyond transcripts, such as student writing samples. See http://www.fairtest.org/

    Recently, a consortium of some of the top colleges and universities in the US have adopted a portfolio system where students can upload work they submitted to their high school classes and other content for review. http://www.coalitionforcollegeaccess.org/

    On the other hand, if exams are intended to test student mastery of basic knowledge/skills that every citizen should know, that’s another story, as an exam may be the only means of assessment. But then, do the current set of tests, be they PISA or localized, really do this? And who decides what knowledge/skills ought to be tested? This is a major issue for the US on a variety of levels.

    • gregashman says:

      Any system of college entry other than exams is likely to advantage the wealthy more than an exam based system. I think I have explained why in the post.

      • David says:

        Hi Greg—maybe. But, in the US it has been a long-standing problem that individual wealth and SAT scores are directly correlated. A lot of this has to do with wealthier parents being able to pay for test prep classes and materials. Disparities in public schools of college counselors and support for lower income students also play a role. http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/27/sat-scores-and-family-income/?_r=0

        To its credit, the College Board which administers the SAT has attempted to change the test to address this issue.

  7. Dylan Wiliam says:

    An examination, like any other assessment, is simply a procedure for making inferences. We give students things to do, and then, we interpret the evidence produced to draw conclusions. What makes assessment difficult is that the conclusions we want to draw are generally about things we did not assess, and so the circumstances of the assessment become important. Moreover, most of the arguments about assessments are conducted by people talking past each other, because different people want to draw different conclusions on the basis of the same evidence. It all comes down to a question that is simple to state, but hard to answer: “Once you know the outcome of the assessment, what do you think you know?”

    • Tempe says:

      It’s fairly simply to my mind, what I want to know is, does my daughter understand the facts/ideas/concepts/procedures/formulas that she has been taught, well or is she in need of more help.

      • Chester Draws says:

        There’s a lot more to an exam than does the student know the ideas.

        There’s elements of natural ability, elements of how much work was done, elements of how focussed the student is. Even sheer memory plays a part in some subjects.

        But what employers and education institutions want is reasonably hard working, reasonably clever, reasonably focused students. To a large part it doesn’t matter that the exam doesn’t separate out those skills, because the end users don’t really care. Any suitable mix will do.

        The stress and anxiety argument against exams bothers me the most. I wouldn’t as an employer want to employ someone who will fold under pressure. That they can produce a lovely folder or presentation without pressure isn’t enough information. (Not to mention the absolute impossibility of making sure any portfolio is the student’s own work.)

    • Tempe says:

      Chester – In a regular test I’m not sure how important natural ability is. How is that information particularly important on the impact of teaching or to the student involved? Sounds a bit like an IQ test, which is not carried out in school.

      Also,how would you measure how much work was done or how focused the student was? To my mind these “measurements” are inconsequential in comparison to how much the student learnt/retained.

      As for memory, it’s my belief that only that which has been remembered has truly been learned. But I’m not sure how that contradicts what I said in relation to being able to apply this knowledge to a test.

    • Pique Boo says:

      what do you think you know?

      More than you knew before?

      In principle you know a thing or two around this, but assessments of my 13-year-old daughter have often been too low and it is largely cyclical. She is a quieter, introverted hands-down girl and when she arrives in a class with a new teacher who doesn’t know her, then roughly half of them to date have let that significantly influence their assessment in the downwards direction. By-and-by there will be some quite substantial test (typically constructed from pieces of national ones) and a significant correction to the teacher’s perceptions. Routine work in exercise books etc. will now be viewed in a better light. Then next autumn…

      That, above all else, is why I like external exams. Further, I like external national exams because school-side has rarely told me anything about this child’s relative propensity for anything and I want to know that. Her opinion on that is unreliable because too much is informed by whether she likes the current teacher and who she shares a table with etc.

  8. Stan says:

    You missed that the other view from Chris Woldhuis showed an extreme inability to solve problems on his part.

    There are so many things wrong with the suggestion of running a café as an alternative to a math exam. You mentioned it would be easier to get an edge for students with wealthy parents. At least in an exam setting the parents give an edge by helping the students learn more not just by inserting cash. The idea fails on any test of feasibility, how would you do this for an entire school system? It fails badly on repeatability even as a test of students ability to run a café.

    Anyone suggesting such an idea should be kept as far away as possible from the education of anyone .

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