On ditching exams

There is a persistent idea in Australia and beyond that Year 12 exams are incredibly stressful and need to be ditched. You see this seam run though government reports and commentary.

Today, The Conversation, has published a piece arguing that Year 12 exam results can be pretty accurately predicted from Year 9 NAPLAN scores (a standardised assessment taken by Australian students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 – although not this year) and so we can use the Year 9 scores and get rid of the Year 12 exams.


This argument is very similar to one I criticised earlier in the year so I will be brief. Year 9 exams work as a good predictor now because they are a low stakes measure. If you make university entrance dependent upon Year 9 exams then instead of stressed 18-year-olds, you will have a bunch of stressed 15-year-olds. What’s more, they will have no incentive to do anything much for their last three years of schooling, despite the author’s rather optimistic hopes of what will happen as a result:

“Our proposal is to allow flexibility for each student to get ready for the next phase of their learning during Year 12. This includes opportunities to use Year 12 to engage in real-world projects, formal apprenticeships, TAFE or university certificates, study abroad (when that can occur again safely), going deeper into advanced courses of interest and providing new supports to promote success without dumbing things down.”

This is before mentioning how unfair such a system would be on those students who work hard during these final three years but are still imprinted with an unshiftable Year 9 score.

I am sceptical about the notion that Year 12 exams are unbearably stressful – certainly not for most students. Previous generations of 18-year-olds have gone to war. And this generation will face job interviews, marriage proposals, unwanted diagnoses, redundancies and a whole range of other pressures as they go through life. An experience of coping with such pressure in a situation that offers no threat to young people’s physical safety is probably a good thing.

The piece in The Conversation also alludes to the concept of learning portfolios, an idea that also features in recent review of Year 12 pathways in Australia.

“Students will leave school with a Learner Profile, identifying the range of their skills, knowledge and experiences. It will include learning and experiences gained inside and outside of school. Students will be guided to recognise the attributes they have acquired through study in the classroom as well as from work experience, volunteering and personal achievement.”

The idea is that this would sit alongside, and enhance, academic measures.

Again, as I have mentioned before, such a plan would benefit the most privileged students – those with an uncle in a particular industry, connections at the local church and time on their hands. It would not benefit the student who catches two buses to school and who works evenings and weekends to supplement the family income. Yes, we can point to the positive use of learner profiles in some case studies at present, but that’s because they are low stakes. Once those with privilege realise that university entrance is linked to them, the gaming will start.

In fact, this already seems to be an issue with entry to elite American colleges. Recently, a case was brought against Harvard on the grounds they were using subjective ratings of personal qualities known as ‘personal ratings’ to discriminate against students from Asian backgrounds. What is fairer, entry based upon a clearly stated and objective standard of an exam or entry based upon a judgement an individual has formed about how personable you are?

In all these situations, it is not enough to focus on the flaws of exams, you also need to coolly consider the proposed alternatives. Yes, students can buy advantage on an exam through access to tuition, but they still have to go alone into the exam room and perform. This acts as something of a leveler.

We could, of course, improve the system in Australia. We need decent alternatives for students who do not wish to go to university. We probably need to go back to more closely aligning Year 12 subjects to university courses – it seems odd that a student who want to study Engineering in Victoria does not need to study physics at Year 11 or Year 12. Australia’s ATAR system is just one way of aggregating exam scores and we could seriously consider alternatives.

But these alternatives still need to be based upon exams if we want to have anything approaching a fair system.


5 thoughts on “On ditching exams

  1. There is one important point everybody seems consistently to miss: exams are fun. If you join a sports club you don’t do it for the pushups and pressups, necessary though they may be, but for the competitions and matches. If you’re into music it’s not for doing the scales and exercises, helpful though they be, but for performing in front of an audience.
    When a pupil mentions being the best footballer in class everybody praises him, when he does the same with being best in maths he’s a braggart. It’s absolutely fine to make fun of the fat kid, who never hits the ball, and the teacher will join in. Do the same with the atrocious speller or the one unable to do arithmetic and the head will call in the parents.
    I had the great luck to have a wonderful Latin teacher. He divided the class into four groups, had regular short vocabulary competitions and the winners received an end-of-term book price. In the beginning I happened to be in the top group. Later two of us were moved to the bottom one and some time later that was top. Yes I was and am proud and enjoyed it greatly. Without exams school would have been boring, they were the spice making it enjoyable.

  2. Lizzie says:

    Firstly, you are linking ATAR with exams, without it seems any nuance, even though for a long time the VCE also has this linked to a variety of other tasks completed at school, which generally aren’t tests or exams.

    Secondly, and think is more importantly, you seem to be of the understanding that the ATAR is directly related to exam scores. Can you please then enlighten us on the formula or methodology as to how the actual ATAR is calculated? Is it just based on the individual performance of the student, or does it also rely on the results of other students in the school studying the same subjects, as well as the results of the students statewide studying the same subject, which is then scaled using GAT scores so that the results are meant to be comparable across studies, but not across years or states. All of which again benefit those that can have GAT preparation studies, have a cohort of students at the same school who are more likely to achieve similar levels, as well as those who study the right subjects and have teachers who are kind in marking the internal school results which, also contribute to their end result.

    Or, to put it another way. Pete Carroll, Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson will all be considered great NFL players. It doesn’t matter that at their “exam time” during the last play of the Superbowl, they chose the wrong play. They will still be considering great players and coaches of the game. But if judged them on the ability on one single play, then they go down as the worst players in history.

    Also, Axel, that is because you where good at exams that you like them. Just like the kids that are good at PE like playing competitive games. The kid who always comes last and doesn’t like the game, or the kid who struggles to understand the teacher standing and delivering content, won’t necessarily enjoy it at all. It is all about context and nuance, which doesn’t seem to be a factor here.

    • Chester Draws says:

      Or, to put it another way. Pete Carroll, Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson will all be considered great NFL players. It doesn’t matter that at their “exam time” during the last play of the Superbowl, they chose the wrong play. They will still be considering great players and coaches of the game. But if judged them on the ability on one single play, then they go down as the worst players in history.

      We judge some people great because over a career they pass more often than fail. No-one bases it on individual games.

      No-one in Australia would suggest that everything hang on one exam, and even less one question. You do exams over a range of subjects. You do them over a variety of years. You get second chances in many cases. You can succeed without having to have someone else fail (an issue with sporting analogies — someone has to lose the Superbowl, no matter how good both teams).

      Also, if you fail a test with 49%, you don’t really get to say “don’t judge me, I just got unlucky with the last question”. We all know you failed to get 51% of the paper right. It never comes down to one question.

  3. Yes Lizzie, you’re right, but we’re talking university entrance here, aren’t we? Someone who had to be coerced into school sports and hated every minute of it is not going to apply for a professional football team, is he? Ever for someone who was consistently best in class and sailed through exams effortlessly it will come as quite a culture shock to sit in lecture hall full of others who were also best, with a lecturer who set his pace accordingly and having to struggle not to drop below average. Subjecting students to this, who do not really enjoy studying and do not belong in a university in the first place is doing them no favours at all.

    I see them in my tutorial, students whom parents made go to university even though deep down they’re well aware it’s not for them. They are wasting the best years of their lives and not even enjoying it. We do our best to weed them out early, but I have some who sit the test five and more times after five and more full years — and no, those are the ones who do not ever come to the tutorial, not even after already having failed three times. Would we help them by giving away that pass and make them fail even later in life with even higher stakes and even less to fall back to? I think not.

  4. Pingback: Education research – the evidence | Filling the pail

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.