Across the country, thousands of A-level students face nervy, sleepless nights before receiving their exam results tomorrow morning. With it all coming to a head in the next couple of days, perhaps now is the right time to step back and review the role of exams in schools.
Exams are meant to differentiate students on the grounds of merit, with the end goal of helping universities and employers assess their potential candidates. But in reality, exams fail to provide any measure of a student's ability. At best, they are a rough estimate of a student's academic potential. At worst, they are completely random.
Being good at exams is not the same as being clever and being bad at exams does not make you unintelligent. Exams are a weird, outmoded form of assessment that focus on a certain set of scholarly skills. Specifically, they assess a student's ability to recall and assemble information under timed-conditions. This has nothing to do with intelligence, nor is it a quality that is particularly valuable in the world of work. It is simply an easy thing to standardise and quantify, and is therefore used as a quick and lazy measure of academic performance. To the extent that exams do measure ability, it is an ability that we do not really care about.
But more often than not, the sheer haphazardness of exams means that they fail to be a fair measure of anything. The number of random contingencies that affect exam performance is overwhelming. This is not just about the small things: wobbly desks, loud-coughers, fire-alarms, your pen running out, etc. Exam performance can be, and is, affected by more serious problems: insomnia, hay-fever, anxiety, migraines, grief. Judging a student on one piece of work is like judging a book by its cover: you will never understand the full story.
For humanities students especially, the randomness only gets worse after the exam. Different exam scripts will be sent to different markers with different understandings of the subject. Although the grades for your exam are presented as objective, they are relative to the preferences of the person who marks it. This problem is made worse by ambiguous mark schemes that reward students for things like 'mastery of essay writing', which opens up a new level of interpretative and arbitrary marking. Despite our supposed belief in meritocracy, our examination system shows scant concern for actually understanding a student's ability.
To perform well in an exam, it is not enough to be well-prepared. You also need to win in a lottery of random factors. The grades received tomorrow will not be a representation of intelligence, knowledge or capability. For the lucky ones, their results will reflect their meaningless exam skills. But for many, their results will be mercilessly random.
Exams are not only bad measures of ability, they distort education itself. Their presence places too much focus on the outcomes of learning, rendering it a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Knowledge is to be learnt for the exam and forgotten the day after. This leaves students with a superficial understanding of their subject. A maths exam, for example, will require a student to know the technique required to solve a problem, but they do not have to know why the technique works.
Learning also becomes a largely prescriptive process. Exams force schools to methodically cover the syllabus, making learning a matter of copying and regurgitating. Students are basically passive in the learning process: there is little room for being creative or original. Indeed, going above and beyond in an exam will cost marks.
There is also something deeply problematic about the competitive principle that underpins exams. Because their purpose is to differentiate between students, exams make education a competition. Students are pitted against each other, which changes the whole psychology of learning. On a general point of principle, it devalues education by making it something that we compete for, rather than something we are all entitled to. But it also impacts what happens inside a classroom. Exams divide students into those that can and those that cannot, but they end up damaging both groups. For those that do well, exams bring a heavy burden of pressure to continue performing. For those that struggle, exams only dishearten and demotivate. Competition in education helps no-one.
Tomorrow marks the end-point of a system that not only fails its purpose, but has the wrong purpose in the first place. Exams do not reflect students' ability, and they shouldn't try to. For those that will receive the grades they wished for tomorrow, congratulations. But to those who miss out, remember that it is the system that has failed you, not the other way around.
Next week: how education can function without exams.