Exam pains all round;Exam results

26th November 1999 at 00:00
Helen McKenzie voices the concerns that many parents feel over the increasing academic pressures which are placed on pupils who are desperate to do well

One of the most distressing education stories of the past year concerned the A-Level student in England who took her own life because she couldn't endure the academic pressures of school any longer.

At 17, my daughter is around the same age. She desperately wants to go to university and is taking five Higher courses to achieve the exam passes she requires. At home we see the stress she is under.

My daughter expected the five Highers to involve considerably more work, assessments and stress than the eight Standard grades she took last year. But she was not prepared for the full extent of additional testing that is now part and parcel of Higher courses. Virtually every week seems to bring either an assessment, preparation for assessment or review of an assessment.

Take Higher geography. By the end of the one-year course she will have had formal assessments for eight core topics, three more detailed applications and a unit on geographical methods and techniques. She will also have had a preliminary exam in February and a final exam in the summer.

As a parent, I wonder if it is really necessary to have so much assessment. Nobody seems to gain from it. For teachers it means heavier workloads, for the exam authority it means additional administrative headaches and for pupils it means greater stress. Much coverage has been given to the impact of Higher Still's internal assessment on teacher workloads, but little to the impact on pupils.

My daughter is at an age where she is full of ideas and has considerable enthusiasm for school. Too much testing can create unnecessary anxieties and dampen this enthusiasm. Learning should be enjoyable and rewarding, not a hurdle race of tests and exams.

There is also the question of reduced learning time in class, because of the hours spent preparing, sitting and reviewing formal assessments. Valuable teacher preparation time is also being devoted to the additional marking and recording required.

Most people accept that written assessments, tests and exams are a necessary part of the education process. Occasional tests can help pupils keep up to date and become familiar with exam-type questions. But the number of tests and exams confronting pupils should be kept in check. The type of assessment is also a factor in pupil stress levels. My daughter finds multiple-choice tests much less traumatic, even though they require large amounts of thinking and working out.

"Long essays, with high marks, are much more stressful," she says. "If I get an essay question wrong, then I will probably fail the entire exam."

I know from reading The TESS's international pages that a preoccupation with exams has had a negative impact on young people in countries such as Japan, where the "examination hell" of too many exams has been blamed on the high number of stress-related illnesses and a high suicide rate among teenagers. My daughter's school has appointed an academic tutor to advise senior students on how to prepare for exams and cope with the pressures. But at the end of the day, it is difficult to discourage diligent and well-motivated young people from worrying too much when exams are part of the formal assessment programme.

Perhaps it is time to have another look at Higher Still's internal assessment requirements and to give serious consideration to reducing the number of formal tests which are causing so much concern for teachers, pupils and parents.

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