Time to re-examine exams?

Every year, tens of thousands of Victorian teenagers sit down for their VCE exams. They are told that their entire life will be shaped in the next fortnight and the value of 13 years of schooling will be assessed in a couple of essays, some multiple-choice questions and a handful of sums.

Surely there is a better way? After all, Einstein failed a few school exams in his time, as did Sir Winston Churchill, Bill Gates and Charles Darwin. Stephen Spielberg famously took three goes to get into film school, while Sir Isaac Newton never graduated from Cambridge. In fact, history is littered with high achievers who scored low marks in their exams.

Exams reward memory over understanding, and conformity rather than creativity. Are there “failures” with equal potential that we never hear from again? Yes, says prominent British educator Peter Tait. Whether it’s because they’re bored by conventional learning, think differently or only have certain, specialised interests, “many intelligent people” have found themselves “disfranchised” by exams.

Some commentators also argue that exams mean educators “teach to the test”, without exploring a subject beyond what is needed for the two hours of the exam. “For many, teaching has become dull, narrow and uninspiring,” writes Mehdi Hasan in The Guardian. “There is no reward for creativity, only results, results, results.”

On the flip-side, exams have the virtue of providing a standardised test at a standardised time, in standardised conditions. Their strength lies in their scalability and ability to assess large numbers of students at once, in locations around Victoria. They provide every student with a single score, which allows them to be ranked in each subject area.

However, this is only useful if the education system is considered an arena for students to complete against each other. Perhaps the exams themselves aren’t at fault, rather the system in which they exist. If the aim of education is to create people who possess knowledge they can apply and express, then surely there is no need to inflict students with the stress and anxiety of regurgitating everything they’ve attempted to remember?

Exams remain the assessment of choice for most courses and providers, due in part to the lack of genuine alternatives. Coursework is considered a key component to most qualifications, but there is too much potential for plagiarism or cheating for it to be the sole measure of success. Exams permit a student to be tested in a vacuum, without the potential for intrusion by outside factors. No phones, no internet access and no books allows each student to be pitted against the test paper without interference.

The question of whether exams are the best form of testing a student’s intelligence may not have a straight answer for the time being but it is a question that nevertheless should be asked.

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