Why Are Exams So Damaging?

01/09/2015 19:11 BST | Updated 01/09/2016 10:59 BST

Over the course of the last few weeks in England, young people have received their A-Level and GCSE results. Some celebrated successes and believed that their several years' hard work had truly paid off, some felt somewhat disappointed about the outcome despite the work put in, and others were in total shock that their sustained effort hadn't resulted in the grades they had hoped to achieve. There were also occasional cases where the young people were simply stunned by their failing the exams, such as this French speaker who got an 'E' for his A-Level French.

The press coverage focusing on the pass rates and the national league-tables charting schools' successes and failures, gives an impression that education is all about exam results. So if young people didn't get satisfactory grades, then they were automatically made to think that they had just failed. Similarly, those schools falling below the targets will be labelled as, well, failing schools, or 'coasting'.

All the talking about successes and failures can put young people in complete meltdown and teachers under huge pressure, and hence stress-related ill-being. Whilst many have criticised the English educational system's obstinate obsession with exams, even claiming it being 'exam factories', I think it is time that we discussed why exams and grades can be so damaging to our young people and their education.

1. Exams and grades can become the end of education and drain the value from learning.

As we have seen, exams and grades have become the end of education, the most pernicious aspect of which is that the students cannot appreciate the intrinsic value of the learning processes they are engaged in. Many become disengaged instead.

This sorry state of affairs arises because of a combination of two common and understandable mistakes: first, identifying the value of an activity with its goal; second, identifying the goal with the measurement of that goal. With the first error, one assumes that the value of a process or activity lies entirely in the goals or intended results. According to the second error, the goal becomes identified with the measurement of the goal (i.e. passing the relevant exam). The idea is erroneous because one cannot identify the value with the way we measure it.

The net effect of these two errors combined is that educational activities become bereft of value. Through the first mistake, the value of the learning process is identified with the result. Through the second error, this result becomes reduced to the obtaining grades. The measurement becomes a target, hence confusing obtaining the good grades as the value of the learning activity.

These tendencies are reinforced by the facts that good grades easily become regarded as a form of public 'currency'. Thus this view becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: by being regarded as such, they become a currency. This makes the instrumentalisation of learning harder to overcome. So the lesson here is that any education assessment mustn't make measurement a goal.

2. Exams and grades impose unnecessary labelling on young people.

Not surprising, students often understand grades in personal and judgmental terms, and may even use them to implicitly label themselves as failures, as being 'thick' or at least as 'not academic'. When judged with grades, a young person cannot feel that he/she is treated with respect because grades do not allow them to express who they are as persons, or explain their talents, interests, dispositions, dreams and hopes.

In brief, grades only show how well a young person did in these specific exams and can be discouraging and unkind. Moreover, they do not send the right feedback message: one of understanding the relevant educational standards (academic and other) and self-improvement to meet them.

3. Grades place young people on comparative terms.

Where there are winners, there bound to be losers. By definition, not everyone can receive an A grade, even if everyone does their best. Grades can turn a school community into a race with winners and losers, or the whole country into a race to identify winners and losers as the league tables tend to do.

Thus, grades necessarily imply comparative judgments about young people that can be very harmful. They stress the message of competition rather than the spirit of collaboration. Therefore any process of educational evaluation should avoid treating learning as a zero sum game.

4. Grades only narrowly measure students' ability to recall knowledge and information.

Preparation for exams tends to focus on mastery at the knowledge and information level. This is a severe limitation, which results from the nature of exams because it can only assess what is most easily measurable. However, education is more than the accumulation of knowledge and retention of information because such an accrual does not constitute learning or understanding or the development of academic and other qualities that make us human.

In conclusion, we must not allow rich learning processes be hijacked by exams and grades. We must avoid assessing young people like judges in a court, passing judgment on them by putting them through high stake testing. Equally, we must move away from a system of evaluation that treats learning as a means to pass exams and students as mere tools useful for GNP. The term 'assessment' carries these two connotations. Let us scrape it. Instead, I propose that students need feedback which is, and always has been, an integral part of learning.

In fact, students need better feedback in order to enrich their learning and improve the qualities of their educational experiences. This means that the criteria by which teachers evaluate a student's work should be inherent in the ipsative process of learning, and not consist in standards imposed from outside of the student's learning.

Once teachers are free from the pressure of preparing students for exams, they will be able to put time and energy into providing the much needed feedback to each individual student so that real learning will take place in schools.

Learning, isn't that the point of education?!