Working the system

One of the questions I discussed today with some of my third year teaching students was: what is the use of school exams? We discussed why we should put kids through the stress and anxiety of testing, when tests do little to help kids to learn meaningful things. Testing is essentially a snap shot of what the student knows when the test is administered. It's a very effective method of scaring kids to death, and it's also a very efficient method with which Governments can gather data to indicate how well the cohort of students in each school has had their heads crammed full of useless facts. And so, educators then find themselves 'teaching to the test', just so that they can give their students a better chance at passing with a reasonable grade. The more students in that school who get good grades, the higher the school will appear in the league tables. Yesterday I wrote about the way the UK Government has cynically manipulated recent test results, with disastrous consequences.

So what about the kids? Isn't school meant to be for their benefit? Exams do little to help children to learn deep and meaningful stuff they can later translate into the reality of life beyond the school gates. How much do I recall from the exams I swotted for? Not a lot. What exams teach children is that if they rote learn lots of facts, figures and information, they can manipulate the system. Being able to regurgitate this kind of surface knowledge onto a test paper to score as high a grade as possible is as far removed from education as it is possible to be. Exams are at best a test of memory and a snapshot of what students 'know' when the test is administered. The exam itself tells us nothing about how children will cope with the messy, complex problems they will face in real life, or how good they are for example, at working in a team. Exams tell us next to nothing about their creative abilities or their cognitive agility. Project work, continuous assessment and monitoring of progress are much more likely to be indicators of how well a child is doing in school.

Chris Husbands, Director of the Institute of Education, recently made a telling statement on the topic in the Guardian newspaper:

"I'm not sure there is any evidence that exams are an improvement device on their own. What improves education is improving teaching and learning. Where exams play a part is the extent to which they provide structures that encourage improved teaching and learning. It's really important that we have rigour in our assessment. It's also really important that we are clear about what rigour means. And rigour means assessing children and young people on the basis of the knowledge, skills and understanding that are going to prepare them for adult life."

Do we need an overhaul of the school examination system? I think in it's current format, it is broken beyond repair. I would be very interested to hear your views.

Calvin and Hobbes cartoon courtesy of Universal Press Syndicate

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Working the system by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported LicenseBased on a work at


how to climb said…
really impressive stuff. thanks for the posts.
Anonymous said…
I agree that exams are largely about memorisation and recall of information, and do little to promote critical analysis or thinking. And to that end, I agree that the system is largely broken.

However, I do think that testing and exams do have some part to play in laying a foundation for learning. We do have to learn some stuff in order to have something to critically evaluate. Gaining expertise, in any area,means that we have to know a lot of content about something. To that end, there is some need to learn basic information in a number of areas in order to have a solid foundation to build on - nothing more irritating than having an argument with someone who wants to argue, but has no idea what they are talking about.

Where I think the real problem lies is with the idea that content, or information, is everything when it comes to learning. It plays a part, but it is not the sum total of education. Unfortunately, content has been placed on a pedestal and it has proved to be well settled there.

Content should be a wrapper to provide interest in learning higher order thinking skills. To that end, it must be learned - not as an end in and of itself, but as a vehicle to take a learner of the journey of discovery. In the world we live in, content has become the end product, and so we graduate students who have learned how to pass exams - a very limiting skill in the world today.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thank you for reading
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your thoughts on this issue, and I largely agree with you. I think you identify one of the key problems, which is the perception that 'content is king'. I have recently been developing my thoughts around this problem, and have come to the conclusion that, actually, context is king - it is the situated learning, around both content and skills, as well as critical thinking within specific contexts that provide young people with the literacies to survive and thrive in a world of work.
Dan Roddy said…
Steve, would you say that the current direction marked out by the education powers is a backwards step (a return to exams that end up being more about recall than application) or a sideways one (not worse, but not improving the system)?
Chris Pitcher said…
Exams are clearly quite blunt instruments and don't really give us what we need in terms of measuring the ability of students at the end of their school career.

However, the obvious question is 'so what do we use instead?'

Teacher assessment is a popular answer. A rare concession was given recently by the government in this direction when the key stage 2 writing test at the end of primary was binned in favour of a much more suitable teacher assessment.

However, with the immense 'league table pressure' exerted on schools an their workforce, teacher assessment has obvious problems surrounding teachers either feeling the need to 'round up' their scores or, even worse, being quietly directed to do so by management.

Moderation could be used to try and keep this in check, but whilst the wider system is so results driven, I think exams are very much here to stay.
Steve Wheeler said…
I hate to say it Dan, but I don't think we are going forward any time soon, unless there is a radical rethinking of what we consider fair assessment. A return to the 'O' level (or GCE) is just that - a return to past values - it's retrograde. You can't reheat a souffle.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for sharing your views and experience Chris. I think the problem lies in the 'league table pressure' that dictates much of what teachers do in the classroom. Ditch the league table concept, and we would be half way toward a workable and achievable solution.
Leonel Morgado said…
Exams are not terribly good at telling us what students know - but do tell us quite a lot about what they don't know. And thus they can be a sobering moment and opportunity for teachers to come to face reality. It's very easy to be tempted to perceive more about students' reasoning and understanding from their actions and projects than what they have achieved, actually (there is research supporting this). Surprises abound in student test answers, and they provide teachers' with insights on misconceptions and misunderstandings that often would otherwise go unseen and undetected. Getting together with a student and going through his/her test answers can be a powerful - sometimes transforming - moment in one's education. As a feedback element from a moment where a student is alone with a problem and her/his reasoning on it, avoiding this element is working without this important assessment data. This feedback loop is usually not available in final exams - for the student. But it is there for the teacher, nonetheless. I regularly rethink my approaches to teaching based on how previous years' students have responded to exam questions.
It is also important to realize that not all exams are created equal: multiple-choice are easy to correct, but really hard to be informative (not to say that's impossible - it isn't); open-ended are much better for insights, even if grades can be less reliable. And there's the question of environment. All my tests and exams have always been conducted in a room with full access to literature and the Internet, with vigilance on preventing non-individual resolutions. Also, if the educational system is to be managed - and parents and taxpayers have a right to be able to have reliable data on its operation - exams are hard to replace as a quantified input about its operation. So we need to look not just at "out with exams" but rather at "what kind of exams" and "how do we complement the data from exams with other sources of data".
Nice article, thanks for the information.

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