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.