General Teaching Council: Exams are bad for the zeitgeist


Yesterday was my last Part III exam. And, just in time for celebratory Pimms and all that, I found this article in the Guardian about the UK General Teaching Council’s call for a re-examination of the country’s exam-based educational culture.

Apparently school children in England and Wales are the `most tested in the world.’ Stress from standardized testing, the GTC claims, is turning students off from academia. I’m not sure how British school children would say it, but, … `duh?’ To the best of my knowledge, there has yet to be a student who looked forward to assessment. (Though good company can make exam preparation fun.)

Anyway, the article includes a suggestion form the GTC that instead of testing every student, only a random sample of each school’s students need to be tested. A possible downside they mention? This would make `league tables’ (Americans: think US News & World Reports’ college rankings) less meaningful. But here, again, I think they’re missing the point: there’s more to education than what can be tested and ranked.

I understand that the `big idea’ in education is accountability. I fear that this is the by-product of a culture where we would rather blame someone for a problem rather than actually fixing the problem. If students are doing well, it’s important to understand why they are doing well and how that can be adapted to other students. If students are doing poorly, it’s important to understand why they are doing poorly and see how this can be ameliorated. But it is also important to understand the what examinations actually assess relative to what we expect from a modern education.

Can a standardised exam tell you how well students can think outside of the box? Or whether they can use multiple tools and approaches to solve a complicated problem? Or if they would make a good research collaborator or graduate student?

It’s possible for a good exam to touch on these things, but at the end of the day, “grown-ups don’t have to take exams as part of their lives,” so it’s not a particularly meaningful skill to be able to ace the SAT/GRE/GCSE. Meanwhile, `high stakes examinations’ does place a lot of stress on students. While I don’t think this stress is an undue burden for most individuals (no worse than the stress placed on athletes at `crunch time’), the GTC is right to note that the aggrandised effect is to sour children from school. It also creates a false sense of hierarchy: what does it mean for student A to have higher test scores than student B? Is he or she more clever? Better suited for life? More likely to succeed? Should student B resign him- or herself to a lower set of self-expectations?

Granted, academic assessment is perhaps necessary as an objective measure of progress — but we need to be cognizant of what it can and cannot tell the assessor. I mean `we’ in a very broad sense: academics judging students, parents judging children, employers judging applicants; there’s more to being successful than what can be expressed in terms of the darkened bubbles of a scantron form. In particular:

  • Creativity. The ability to think laterally and approach problems in novel ways.
  • The Big Picture. A broad understanding of how differen topics fit together.
  • Confidence. Healthy self-confidence is an important prerequisite for success.
  • Communication. Whether giving talks or collaborating, the ability to communicate well with others is critical.
  • Passion/ambition. Perhaps one of the most important assets, passion for what one is doing generates many of the above qualities.

These aspects are tough to assess in any standardised way, but that doesn’t mean they should be left out of the equation at the end of the day. Ultimately, in an educational culture full of exam-based assessment, hopefully we (teachers, academics, parents, mentors) can encourage students to develop in these non-examinable areas.

2 Responses to “General Teaching Council: Exams are bad for the zeitgeist”

  1. 1 robert

    An interesting take on Britain’s simultaneous obsessions with testing and the non-elitist requirement that everyone gets a prize. When I was first exposed to exams, at junior school, I put forward the ‘ grown-ups don’t do this in the real world’ argument and was told that ‘when you grow up, every day will be an exam’, and that I could look forward to a quotidian experience of failure. Ouch. Perhaps that explains my lack of enthusiasm for growing up.

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