Exams are more relevant than ever

We have all heard the arguments: Formal written examinations only measure performance on one day, not what students can do over a sustained period. They have a narrow academic focus that does not take into account ‘non-cognitive skills’ such as social skills and creativity. They involve cramming material that is often forgotten as soon as the exam is over and wealthy students can afford tutors to help them prepare, placing them at an advantage. Moreover, formal examinations look nothing like the kind of work that people do in the 21st century. Professionals can consult the internet at any time to conduct research or check facts and most jobs involve collaborating with colleagues. So we need to replace formal examinations with something else that better reflects all of our students’ abilities.

This is a flawed argument.

Some of the criticisms aimed at examinations are true. They do only offer a snapshot of performance, they are academically focused and wealthy kids can buy an advantage by paying for a tutor. However, those wealthy kids still have to go into the exam room alone, without means of communication to the outside world, and sit the exam. What would the alternatives look like? If you assess students using ongoing coursework or the production of a portfolio then there is more scope for a tutor to coach wealthy students and perhaps even produce some of the work itself. Similarly, if we allow examinations to become more like the real world and, for instance, allow students the ability to access the internet during their biology exam, we can bet that the disadvantaged student will be looking up information on Wikipedia while the advantaged one will be messaging the biology professor his uncle knows. Exam conditions, where students really do have no contact with anyone else, are even more important in a digital age than they were before.

Once we begin to take account of ‘non-cognitive’ skills, we introduce bias based on class, ethnicity and gender, because these skills overlap so much with bourgeois manners. In an exam, nobody can tell that you have a Birmingham accent or that your upbringing means that you are a little rough around the edges. Unfortunately, we have now introduced these factors as legitimate reasons to discriminate against you. It’s tough luck if your quirkiness means that you don’t gel with your team-mates in a collaborative task because it will be used to judge your collaborativity or some such made-up nonsense.

The Australian National University (ANU) has had the idea of judging students on their, ‘contribution to family, school and community.’ This is the kind of extracurricular requirement favoured by American universities. Students will still need to obtain a minimum set of exam results but ANU will use this as an additional measure. Does this sound reasonable? If so, have a think about who is in the best position to game such a requirement. Is it the public-transport-using child of a single working mother from Western Sydney or the car-owning child of sharp-elbowed parents from an affluent suburb with plenty of connections at the local church and no need of a part-time job?

Before we throw out exams, it is worth remembering why we invented them in the first place. The entry examination for the civil service in imperial China was introduced and gradually expanded in part to wrest power away from the old aristocracy.

The fact is that the best argument against exams – that more affluent students are at an advantage because of their access to resources – is an even stronger argument against all of the alternatives. Exams are the least worst option and they are more relevant than ever.


19 thoughts on “Exams are more relevant than ever

  1. ijstock says:

    The problem is not exams themselves, but the inflated stakes tht they are now done for. Both for pupils and teachers. There is a world of diference between exam as a retrospective validation of learning and exam as supposed *purpose* of learning.

    • Chester Draws says:


      And internal assessments get round this problem how?

      Without exams, then people will judge you on your internally assessed material. Which will no longer be a measure of learning, but will be absurdly important for entry into university etc.

      There is no way out of this bind. Exams are not the cause of it, merely the expression.

      Get rid of internal and external assessment and your connections and reputation become over-valued. That’s the old way, and it sucked for the deprived or disadvantaged.

      We have to judge people. Let us use the most impartial method to do that. Which is blind examinations.

  2. Exams indeed do not discriminate between Brummie accents and that of Eton. Knowledge base will still discriminate but this is rectifiable by schools teaching the knowledge base that the influential and powerful value – only by doing so is it possible for their stranglehold to be challenged. This is one reason why entry into the civil service is by competitive examination – not by soft skills.

  3. Tom Burkard says:

    You forgot to add the recent report by a neuroscientist claiming that children’s brains are in a critical stage of change at age 16 and that the stress of GCSEs will turn them into a greyish-whilte glop and cause mental illness. Wonders never cease. Just think of the lucky kids in Syria who don’t sit GCSEs.

    Of course, by now even the meanest intelligence should have twigged to the hysterical chorus that assaults our ears this time of year: we’re looking at people’s jobs! or if not their jobs, at least their sense of self-worth. When your pupils can’t pass our miserably dumbed-down exams, it just has to be explained away.

  4. Tom Burkard says:

    There is perhaps a better alternative to end-of-course exams: annual tests (or even termly tests). Using Computer Adaptive Tests, these need not be all that intrusive, and so long as question banks were sufficiently large to make it impossible to teach the test without teaching the subject, they would serve to focus instruction rather than distort it.

    Until the Plowden Revolution, testing was an integral part of teaching and learning–yet only recently has research discovered that tests not only consolidate learning in long term memory, but they also have a ‘forward effect’–meaning that they improve learning of subsequently studied material. Pretty obvious, really–when pupils know they’ll be tested, they’re a lot more attentive.

  5. Tara Houle says:

    We’ve gotten rid of provincial exams here, and guess what our universities are contemplating? Mandating that exams be taken upon application to combat grade inflation! Some teachers are so frustrated about the cancellation of provincial exams, they’ve started a letter writing campaign provincewide http://www.timescolonist.com/opinion/op-ed/island-voices-b-c-s-curriculum-for-failure-1.23300368

    Perhaps Daisy Christodoulou said it best. Exams help those who are the most disadvantaged in school. It’s the best tool we have, so why get rid of them? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGxxw6sqeVg

  6. David F says:

    The problem with exams in the US is who gets to make them…we have the College Board trying to make the SAT (main college entrance exam) and the Advanced Placement tests look like the Common Core tests–these emphasize generic reading skills (see Hirsch’s last book for a critique of that). Pearson has also had its money-grubbing hand in the development of other standardized assessments. I think the best way to make exams work is if they are developed by entities which are evidenced-based and are free of outside influences. That’ nearly impossible in the US today.

    • I don’t see how Pearson or the CB is at fault for trying to make the exams track the government generated curriculum. If the government pays too much or is unduly influenced by private interests, it doesn’t follow that full state control of the whole endeavor is going to be a better option.

      • Ann in L.A. says:

        Because, in particular, College Board’s SAT is supposed to be a college entrance exam. Colleges need to know that students are ready for college material, not that they have satisfied Common Core. But Common Core is not a college-ready standard, at least not for anyone going to a selective college or anyone wanting a STEM major. If the college entrance exams provide no more information than a high school diploma, they are useless to the colleges. The more aligned with Common Core they become, the more colleges will look elsewhere to find their students.

  7. Jane S. says:

    Exams also have an advantage for students with some types of disabilities. I have a form of cerebral palsy that makes writing by hand very difficult and my typing tends to be slower than others’ writing. As a result, many things take me longer, so I couldn’t take as many AP classes as many other students at my (amazing) high school and my grades, while respectable outside math, weren’t as high as they could have been. But on the SAT and AP exams (including one I took without having taken the corresponding course), I could show what I actually knew. This definitely helped me get into good universities, including the one where I now teach. (I went on to earn a Ph.D. in ecology and work on developing math curriculum for biology students.)

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