Exams Should Be Abolished – Part 1

Public exams, whether they are the National Curriculum Tests (SATs), GCSEs, A-Levels or similar, should be scrapped.  These exams, and all the associated paraphernalia of league tables, performance pay, should go.

This is not an argument against any sort of testing in schools, when done in the proper way, regular testing of pupils gives teachers a valuable insight into their progress, strengths and weaknesses, provided the limitations of the test and its results are fully understood.  Such data can also help towards a teacher’s professional development, as they can see exactly in what ways they are proving effective, and where there is room for improvement.

This is an argument against high-stakes testing, where the pupils are not the beneficiaries.  High stakes testing is where the test scores are used by various organisations or individuals for their own purposes, and where these data are used as a proxy for other, less quantifiable, things.

These high-stakes exams (I’ll just refer to these as ‘exams’ from now on) are used for a number of purposes.  They are used by employers and Universities to select employees and students.  Whe converted into league table form they are used by parents looking to pick a school for their child, and by Ofsted and the Department of Education as a stick to beat schools with.  Schools will then likely use them as a stick to beat teachers with.

But exam results, however intelligently they are handled in the creation of a league table, are too crude to represent anything more than themselves.  Sets of results do not represent the ability or potential of a student.  Even individual results don’t.  I received an ‘A’ grade for GCSE Physics purely on the basis of a good memory and reasonably good revision.  I do not think like a physicist however much I might like to (not often).

Results for a whole school do not represent anything either.  Often the term used is ‘standards’.  But if you are judging a school on exam results you are not judging the standard of the education provided by that school, unless you define a good standard of education as ‘getting students to get high grades in exams’.  And if that is your idea of a good education, I feel sorry for you.  In fact, the obsession with exam grades above all else has led to a complete distortion of compulsory education.  One effect is a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on the ‘core’ subjects (English, Maths and Science), to the comparative neglect of everything else.  But don’t think those subjects get away scot-free.  Because of the intense focus on these subjects, the pressure to ‘teach to the test’ is immense, leading to an impoverished curriculum likely to put students off these vital areas of study.

Genuine, exciting teaching and learning is replaced with constant, tedious revision of what is likely to appear in the exam papers.  And in the exams, the dullards who have the right keywords and techniques will outperform the bright students who made the mistake of actually being interested in the subject rather than methods for getting marks.

But doesn’t passing exams benefit students?  Only in a narrow sense.  If you get all A grades you are more likely to get into the University of your choice, or get a better-paid job (if you can get a job at all).  But looked at as a whole, raising exam grades for the majority of students is utterly pointless.  It’s what game-theorists call a ‘zero-sum game’ – because the grades have been raised overall, the relative differences between the students will still be there.  So if you might have otherwise got a C, but because of exam-centred teaching you got a B, but all your B-worthy classmates (and others in other schools) instead got an A, you have secured absolutely no advantage.  This example provides an opening to my next criticism of exams – the purpose they serve in a capitalist society riven with scarcity, division and hierarchy.  Part 2 will follow when I write it.  Pay attention, because it will be in the test.

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