Exams – a reflection

“Exams are a helpful measurement of student success and ability.” How far do you agree with this statement?

While I do agree with some elements of this statement, overall I find exams place too much priority on a specific skill set and can be a damaging and discriminatory method of assessment.

Exams assess for recall. This is an important skill that students need to develop across any element of their lives – the ability to recall facts plays a key part of being a successful adult. In different subjects, exams also give students an opportunity to show their growth or understanding in the application of theories and methods they have been taught. They are required to answer questions and solve problems that they have not come across before and cannot request assistance on. In this way, they are forced to solve their dilemmas and work truly independently.

Many will also point to exams being useful for placing students in high-stress situations that they will encounter in different forms in their adult life. High-stress situations that they need to become accustomed to handling and develop strategies for.

I will begin my disagreement here.  So far as I can remember, the last time I had that kind of mental stress placed on me was when I sat exams myself, eleven years ago.

Exams are a scale of proving success – not growth. They test recall – but what of curiosity, understanding, creativity?

I have students who proved they could remember that Germany received a loan of 800 gold marks from the USA in 1924. This is remarkable because I definitely did not force them to remember this fact. In fact, I might have forgotten to tell it to them as something they should even bother remembering at all.

My approach to teaching history is inherently flawed for an exam where remembering that fact is a measure of success. I’m more likely to go off on a tangent about how the art movement of the Weimar age was a reflection of distorted sense of self after the world was torn apart in WWI. How people were trying to find and express their new selves in a changed world. Much as we do today. Needless to say, the IGCSE doesn’t assess for this kind of understanding.

I have students who will never pass a history / geography exam. They walk into the gym being told “Take a deep breath, cross into the classroom, sit down and spend the next two hours trying to prove you’re not an idiot”, and get a low grade back that tells them they’re an idiot. And I despise that. And I despise my role in it.

These are students who have an eye on the world and a keen sense of injustice. They can talk to you and argue with you about historical events and ask deep and honest questions. They are curious and questioning about what is happening in the world around them. They sigh and laugh and close their eyes in frustration and understanding at the stories I weave for them. They understand it. They’re not idiots.

So no, exams are not a helpful measure of student success and ability. Not by my definition of student success and ability, any way.

This entry was posted in education, history, teaching and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Exams – a reflection

  1. Pai says:

    oh…your lucky students, Ca… but what us the alternative to testing?….

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