'Concerns about high-stake exams are as old as the exams themselves. Will things ever change?'

11th February 2018 at 10:03
In 1918, a physiologist said "examinations should be part and parcel of education, and not its soulless despot" – and yet, a hundred years later, we're still teaching to the test, writes Kevin Stannard

Many of us who supported the principle of linearity embedded in the recent exam reforms did so because it promised to restore the priority of teaching over testing. Curriculum 2000 had initiated a regime in which high-stakes tests occurred more frequently, breaking-up teaching and learning and creating a culture of ‘learn it, forget it’. Over two uninterrupted years, by contrast, it is possible to build a programme that is more than the sum of its modular parts. Courses can commence with a broad survey, providing a frame for subsequent detailed study, without the pressure of preparing for imminent exams.

However, exam reform did not stop at mitigating modular mayhem. It also took a hatchet to coursework and controlled assessment, and in so doing, cut away at the integrity of teacher assessment. Linear programmes have cleared the path of high-stakes interim assessment obstacles, but they have also taken out opportunities for continuous assessment, and unnecessarily raised the stakes on the terminal exam.

The relationship between teaching and testing has not fundamentally changed. Perhaps it was naïve to assume that this might have been the outcome of exam reform. After all, concerns about the distorting effect of examinations on education are as old as the exams themselves.

Examinations as we know them date from the mid-Victorian period, their origin in the drive to replace privilege and entitlement with competitive ranking based on academic merit. But even at their egalitarian inception, the distorting effect of exams gave cause for concern. Thomas Huxley, the biologist and educationalist, memorably observed, “Students work to pass, not to know. They do pass, and they don’t know." He even suggested that the “educational abomination … of the day is the excessive stimulation of young people to work at high pressure by incessant competitive examinations”.[1] Huxley was clear about where the priority should really lie: "Examination, like fire, is a good servant, but a bad master."[2]

William Whewell was on the side of the angels when it came to reforming the archaic system at Cambridge in the mid-nineteenth century, but he, too, worried about over-reliance on examinations: education “consists, not in accumulating knowledge, but in reducing the faculties of man (sic). It does not consist of information, in the modern sense of the term, but in the formation of the mind. It requires, not merely occasional performances, but permanent habits…[3]

Perhaps most startling in its currency, though, are the thoughts of Ernest Starling, the eminent physiologist who discovered the first hormone. Exactly a hundred years ago, he condemned the influence of snapshot final exams on medical education, and advocated continuous assessment: “The examination system should…be continuous – part and parcel of the education, and not its soulless despot.”

Starling considered the examination system to be an incubus that was stunting to the student and “a dreary prison house to the teacher”. How can we make progress, he wondered, “if every new spirit in teaching is smothered at its birth by the prevailing system of examination and tests?”[4] His concerns resonated well beyond the world of medical education.

Verily it is written, there is no new thing under the sun.

Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

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[1] Stoddart, D (1986) On Geography and its History. Oxford: Blackwell. Stoddart was citing Bibby, C (1959) T. H. Huxley: Scientist, humanist and educator. London: Watts.

[2] Huxley, TH (1893) Collected Essays. Volume 3: Science and education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Whewell, W (1845) Of a Liberal Education in General; and with particular reference to the leading studies of the University of Cambridge. London: John Parker. Cited in Garland, M (1980) Cambridge Before Darwin: The ideal of a liberal education, 1800-1860. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Starling, EH (1918) ‘Medical education in England: the overloaded curriculum and the incubus of the examination system’, British Medical Journal, 2: 258-259: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2341641/pdf/brmedj06960-0016.pdf

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