Why do we still have exams?

We live in the Information Age where the most common answer to any question is, “I don’t know. Why don’t you Google it?” What was once science fiction is vastly becoming fact, the ideas presented in Star Trek and the like are a part of our reality or they soon will be. Our world is fast evolving. Or is it?

One look at our education system and it’s easy to think that we’re still stuck in the past. We’re trumpeting innovation and collaboration but we have a significant ball and chain that is anchoring us in a seemingly outdated way of thinking: exams.

Many people now question the validity of this process, the necessity of these tests. Exams, to many, seem as torturous and barbaric as the Rack or the Iron Maiden. So why do we have them?

Some argue that they are the most reliable way of measuring a person’s knowledge. Many schools now allow students to process and present information in a great variety of ways so comparability becomes difficult. Likewise, the Internet grants people access to seemingly infinite information which makes plagiarism easier so it is difficult to determine what a student knows and what a student has found. Exams level the playing field.

Playing field.

Let’s draw some parallels. School is a sport – It’s interesting that the word ‘code’ is used in both an educational (course codes) and sporting (football codes) context. Exams are the finals series and your ATAR (the University entrance score in Western Australia) is the championship/premiership.

So, why do sports have a finals series that culminates in a Grand Final? Why not simply judge teams based on their finish in the home and away series?

There the answer is easier. The fans enjoy the spectacle and the knowledge that their team has beaten the best teams of that season, not just the also rans. The teams that win enjoy the increased revenue that comes from rewards from the league and from the increase in sales of merchandise and memberships. The league also enjoys the financial benefits as thousands of people flock to the game expecting a great contest. Finally, the media make bucketloads of money too as advertisers pay through the nose to reach the massive audience.

So why do we have exams?

There is no enjoyment here.

Students hate them. We protect our kids so much these days: we shield them from failure as we remove scoring from junior sports and hand out certificates of participation to all competitors, we fret about the hidden nasties online and on the street, we alter our grading systems to remove F grades and we avoid marking in red to limit the negative impact it has on their self-esteem. We do all of this and then we make them suffer the stress of examinations.

Many teachers hate them too. Where is the exam that measures the social and emotional growth of a student? Exams test the depth of knowledge but where is the exam than measures the increase in knowledge from point A to point B? Worst of all, exams beget exams. Schools try to build an exam culture by testing students at every possible turn. NAPLAN (a national literacy and numeracy test in Australia) began as a diagnostic test now schools do tests to prepare kids for the test. It’s ridiculous. If you hire me as a teacher, trust that I will do the job well. Quality educators will get results, teaching to the test is unnecessary. Plus, the marking load already sucks!

Some schools hate exams too. So, why do we force students to sit them?

Simple. The universities don’t trust our judgement (see the comments above about seeking a level playing field). The exam is a common assessment. Moderated. Standardised. Seemingly free from the foils of humanity. Then there’s the government. These tests and exams are the easiest way to get quantitative data that reflect a school’s ability to impart knowledge on its students. As such, attaching funding to these results appears logical and, once that’s happened, it’s a brave school that chooses not to focus on them.

Where does that leave us? Look around. The reason the water is murky is because we’re up fecal creek and we’ve lost all of our rowing instruments.

Why do we have exams? The simple answer is that they are the simple answer. They are the most simplistic and cost effective way of determining a person’s ability to remember and process information. Is that still a skill that’s necessary in today’s world? Damn straight. Any chump can Google. I want my high profile people in high pressure professions to really know what they are doing.

So, we’re stuck with exams until something better comes along. I don’t have the solution. I’m not a genius. But I do teach a few. Maybe one of them will come up with the answer.

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