There’s been loads written recently about whether the current qualifications system should undergo a major overhaul once the pandemic is over. Scrapping exams has been touted, and that suggestion surprises me, for a whole host of reasons, while many other maths teachers seem to have a similar response: "Nah."
Teachers across the country will recognise the intrinsic motivation that an end-of-year exam provides while navigating the course. Of course, an exam isn’t always perfect, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) can have the occasional clanger and no exam can capture every piece of learning, but keeping one eye on the final exam while covering the course content can be helpful for maintaining sustained focus.
Qualifications that rely purely on internal assessment suffer because of the value placed on them by employers, parents, students and even teachers. Even though teaching is a noble profession, there can be extreme pressure from management or government to hit targets, and there’s a temptation to “get students a National 4 pass”, whatever that takes.
Also this week: More calls for the exam system to be overhauled
You’ll hear stories about non-attenders being invited in for a short time of intensive support to be coached through the assessment that others have slogged away to pass over a whole year. And if everything hinges on internal coursework then we could see the relentless assessment across every subject that students faced in 2020, when it became clear that we wouldn’t have exams. (I’ve never seen the final exams in May inflict such strain on students as they faced with the intense culmination of portfolios, performance pieces and assessments.)
Exams are the fairest assessment method
Everyone’s drowning in a sea of notifications and online lessons right now, so it’s natural to consider the burden of additional workload that a qualification without a final exam places on teachers. Teachers are grafters, as we’ve seen throughout Covid-19 lockdowns. Whether they should or not, they routinely clock up hours beyond their contracts; abandoning exams would add another demand as they face the prospect of creating, administering and assessing more internal coursework.
A final exam, the same one for all, assessed by teams of knowledgeable, experienced markers using a common marking scheme with checks and scrutiny, strikes me as the fairest assessment method. It’s independent so it provides no obvious advantage to any student. It’s consistent, so an A from a student from my class in Killie holds the same value as an A from a student in Inverness.
It’s seems a knee-jerk reaction to say, “We didn’t have exams in 2020 and 2021 and the education system is still intact, so we can ditch exams after the pandemic is over." That’s definitely not a view I subscribe to.
The qualifications process might need altering, of course. It’s been reviewed many times, even in the 15 years I’ve been teaching. Some of us still mourn the death of exams for every S4 student that the loss of Standard Grade brought about. And the undeniable pressure of a final exam was ramped up a notch when the old appeals system (which could compensate for atypical underperformance on the day) was replaced in 2014.
However, taking all of this on board, I still think that the best way to assess mathematics nationally is with at least part of the award weighted on a final exam.
But is that just me? I know I have plenty of views that wouldn’t reflect those of my colleagues…
I wasn’t sure. So I stuck up a poll on the “Scottish Maths Teachers” Facebook page (knowing it’s a lively, active group whose mermbers care about students and who are passionate about teaching), asking whether we should scrap exams. I invited folk to share their views. My phone just about melted down that Thursday evening as the notifications flooded in – this was a topic that people have strong views about! This snapshot of the maths teaching community was striking, with 111 of 122 respondents (91 per cent) opting to keep the final exam system.
This won’t be decided by a vote, but if it did maths teachers would place their X next to the box marked “Keep Exams”. And we all know maths teachers are the experts in solving problems involving "x".
Chris Smith is a maths teacher who was Scotland's 2018 teacher of the year. He produces a regular maths newsletter that has thousands of subscribers and tweets @aap03102