Exam Week…again!

It’s exam week!

For the whole week, students at my school have been traipsing into school, lining up, entering an exam room, writing exams, going to a holding room to wait, repeating this three times daily…rinse and repeat!

Exam season has become a hallmark of education. After all, how can we have school without these formal examination periods? They help teachers test understanding and retention, and are a critical part of developing and assessing a student’s understanding…

But that’s a lie!

There is significant research that tells us that exams have little educational benefit, and some suggest that they may do more harm than good. Consider the following:

  1. In a modern educational setting where students learn collaboratively in groups using a project based philosophy, exams are a crude way to assess skills. We’re not testing the way we teach.
  2. Skills taught and investigated in a classroom are completely different to those that can be assessed in a formal timed, written examination. We’re not testing what we’re teaching. 
  3. Exams bring with them an undue stress, which doesn’t usually exist in the classroom. This additional stress can cause significant underperformance in an exam.
  4. There are students who are natural test takers, and those who have problems with tests. Exams often assess a test taker’s test-taking ability, more than the content being assessed. 

Additionally, exams bring some signifiant problems to the table:

  1. Stress is exacerbated by exams. Those prone to panic attacks are more likely to have additional attacks during exam times.
  2. Stress related conditions are worsened during periods of heightened stress. There is a marked increase in teen suicide attempts, cutting and other psychological symptoms during exam times.

So with this mismatch between educational objectives and examination as an assessment tool, and the increase of serious negative effects, why do we still have exams?

Well, there are many reasons. The background of teachers and school administration, parental pressure, the school board, but one major factor is simply because qualification boards have not developed better ways to assess. And this may be due to the fact that undergraduate university courses are also assessed through exams. After all, if students have to write exams at the end of their course, then we have to prepare them, right?

Granted, It’s difficult, how do you develop assessments that are equally and consistently assessed, where you have true assurance that the work is that of the learner, assessments that are simultaneously authentic and realistic? Traditionally, assessed or moderated coursework has counted towards a minimal amount of the overall assessment, partly due to the risk of excessive teacher or tutor support, leading to unfair grade awards, but in an increasingly connected world, would it be unrealistic for all assessment to be coursework, with an external moderation and possibly an integrated viva voce over, day, Skype. In this case, moderation allows standardisation, and a viva voce of a randomised sample ensures compliance and authenticity of student work. 

But until exam boards move into the modern world, and set authentic assessment tasks, and assess them effectively, we will have exams at the end of school. This forces schools to not only administer exams at the end of the year, but also additional exams to prepare students for the experience. Pretty soon, annual or even biannual exams throughout a school are the order of the day…no matter how educationally unsound they may be. 

I keep praying for change…but in the meantime, off I go to call “Time’s up” on yet another exam.