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The need to re-think exams

(Alternative paths of education - part 1)

We need to rethink why we assess education. Why do we take exams.

Quite often, as we are in the conveyor belt of education, it feels like exams, tests, assessments take place because that is what happens, that is simply ‘the way’. We put ourselves through the system, we put our kids through the system, and we rarely have the time or energy to stop to think and ask why. Let's stop and ask. This might help take some pressure off, as we head straight into exam season.

Assessment is a tool of dual purpose:

1. It can help us understand where we are, what we know, what we don’t know, what we have misunderstood, so we can then change how we learn, choose what we need to learn, or move on to something else. Assessment then is a tool to improve learning. This is formative assessment.

2. It can help us test for mastery of specific knowledge. This is summative assessment.

If assessment is a tool for learning it should not be a stressful process, it should be a natural activity that should be fun. Quizzes can be games; assessments can be conversations. The goal is not to shame, rank, stress, but to inform, inspire, challenge. This has been lost in ranking tables.

If assessment is to test the mastery of a specific subject, we need to think about when such mastery is needed and, therefore, when measurement should take place. I cannot phantom why 5, 7, 9, 11, or even 13-year-olds need such assessment as they are very much engaged in the process of daily learning. I can understand why you want a doctor to master science before he gets close to a patient.

I think the biggest problem with assessments in education is that exams have crept from being a tool in education to being the purpose of education. This simply destroys the educational process. Rather than using assessments to help us improve our learning/teaching, we are now learning/teaching for the assessment. We limit what we cover, we limit how we teach it, and we limit how we learn things because the goal is to do well in the exam, rather than to learn. This is the ultimate tail wagging the dog.

There are other problems with assessment. First, we need to consider cultural and neurodiversity. If we are trying to understand understanding, how can a single set of tests measure this across cultural, language, and neural differences. Just within my household I can see how 4 different people understand the same information in very different ways. We can all master a skill, but we will learn it, use it, explain it, and crucially, understand it differently. Some can verbalise their understanding while others can embody and use the understanding but struggle with verbalising. Which type of knowledge is better? I would argue none. They are simply different. This is within one household. Imagine a classroom of 10, 20, 40. Imagine trying to compare across a country. Across countries even. To use another trite expression – we are covering the sun with our thumb. We need to realise that human knowledge and understanding is more diverse and complex than current assessment models allow for. Thus, we should take their findings with a pile of salt.

There is another concern I have with assessment which comes back down to human diversity. I love exams, I will confess. I get a huge adrenaline burst in an exam room and my brain quick fires. Nervous energy makes me buzz and I crack my neck like popcorn while answering questions. But once I leave the exam, I quickly forget 90% of the facts that were only useful in that exam. So, I do well, but does it matter?

Others do really well in exam and remember everything. And enjoy exams. That is fantastic. But let's remember that education needs to consider everyone. So this post is focused on those who fall outside this category.

I know many who simply freeze up in an exam. Anxiety is a normal reaction. It is not something you are doing wrong; it is your brain reacting to stress. For some of my brilliant students, an exam room filled with the adrenaline of others, with glaring lights, with scratching pencils, with cold desks… is simply the worst environment to let them showcase what they know.

And who came up with the idea that one day, one bad day in your life, can be a good/fair assessment of what you know, of what you can do? Surely, at least, we should be able to re-do exams. What if you have a migraine on the day? What if you are on your period? What if your family had a terrible night? How is this considered.

Now, let’s not be naïve enough to pretend we don’t live in a world where competition is rife and where our children will need to compete at times. But the need to prepare for a hard world does not mean education should replicate the mistakes of this world. In fact it should to the opposite – provide the skills needed to transform, rather than maintain, problematic norms.

We should also mention AI as a challenge to how we think about assessment. AI challenges us to think about what makes our thinking uniquely human. What can we do that AI cannot, and what, therefore, should our assessments be valuing, measuring for?

Perhaps the challenge of AI can inspire us to think more broadly and more radically about assessment in education, what it should be (a tool), and what it should not be (a driver). Yet, is hardly radical to ask that we use other models of assessment – portfolios, course work, projects. And that these use formative assessment. One of the biggest reasons I advocate for this is that formative assessment requires human interaction. To discuss your work, your ideas, with another human being, you need time, you need to build relationships, you need to be human. This is something no AI can do. And this is what a rich education depends on: those wonderful deep, long-term, mentoring relationships were we learn from each other.

However, I also know why these are not more often used: money. It is so much more expensive to have enough teachers, enough hours, to sit with a young person, to build the trust needed to share ideas, to be vulnerable in discussing mistakes in a safe way. And this work is hard because it is not just about intellectual knowledge, it is about emotional engagement, it is about cultural learning, it is about creating unique spaces for unique people. It requires time, it requires people, and this requires money. Yet all the governments in the world who scream about the importance of education are unwilling to make this necessary investment. To pay enough to allow for this work to be properly valued. Instead, we move to mass exams because they are cheaper. Because they give us numbers we can easily compare. And those who don’t fit the system. Well, they are collateral damage.

I don’t want my children to be collateral damage. I refuse to let anyone in TMU fall on the side of an exam they did not want/were not ready for. This is why we cover I/GCSES courses with exams as only an option, not a mandate, and focus on wellbeing and holistic learning for all. For those who do exams: we support you 100%, for those who want a different path: we will make it happen. Change is needed. We are here to make that change happen.


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