Exams system must evolve or face extinction

28th August 2009 at 01:00

In evolutionary terms, an animal that is not well suited to its environment will die. Over time, a population that has not adapted to the prevailing environmental conditions will also die out, and hey presto! - extinction.

Recent reports from Ofqual and Score (Science Community Representing Education) show that GCSEs in science are no better than basic general knowledge tests. That, combined with warnings that increasing pass rates are unsustainable, could be a sign that this particular qualification is due to die out, and with it the whole population of GCSE examinations could be doomed to extinction.

Normally, there is an outcry when an animal is threatened with extinction, but somehow I don't think that there will be fundraisers, marches and preservation orders to keep what has been an ailing and sick system of examination safe. Better, I think, to put it out of its misery now.

Why examinations have become such an unfit tool of assessment is not really that hard to see. The advent of multiple-choice tests and electronic marking systems, as well as the replacement of experienced teachers with less knowledgeable, cheaper graduate markers, make it clear that financial cost has taken precedence over integrity, reliability and validity.

Even the Conservatives' recent announcement on plans to reform league tables if they gain office misses the point. Tinkering with reporting mechanisms or league tables - which are, in practice, meaningless - will not restore confidence in the examination system.

League tables, based on past performance, do not necessarily give an accurate guide to future performance. We know our financial system suffers the same problem (recently realised with the ongoing credit crunch), but why do league tables not carry such a warning? Only a complete overhaul and major rethink of the purpose of examinations will solve the problem.

The word examination comes from the Latin examinare and means "to weigh accurately". Judging by the volume of paper generated and the millions of scripts shifted each year, weight is not the problem. Examinations were invented by the Chinese more than 4,000 years ago as a means of selecting people for civil service. Our current form of a public exam began in 1792 when a chemistry professor at Cambridge University named William Farish decided that the usual way of examining students (orally, in Latin) was too slow. Professor Farish wrote down his questions and his students wrote down what they knew: the first written exam. Almost 220 years on, we have not come up with anything better.

In the 19th century a naturalist and school examiner, Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin who proposed his own theory of natural selection, stated that exams led teachers to teach to the test, especially when they were paid by results. If teachers were trusted and paid to do a good job, he could see no need for exams. Teachers, he argued, could provide the best assessment of children based on their day-to-day knowledge of their work and progress. To a small degree, we have this with coursework, but even the integrity of that has been questioned with the advent of the internet and issues surrounding plagiarism.

What has been lost in our examinations system is its heart and soul - displaying to your teacher not just knowledge but understanding. The heart and soul of the current exams system seems to be more about statistics and accountability than about the children being examined.

What should replace our exams system is not a more efficient way of gathering numerical data to "show" managers and the Government that grades have increased, or, I might add more cynically, as a method of checking up on teachers to see whether they are doing their jobs properly, but ways in which children can show what they know, understand and value from their education. Just as artists compile a portfolio to share their achievements with others, pupils could and should develop portfolios of work to their highest possible standard, and have them assessed by peers as well as teachers.

Scrap the huge number of formal examinations, exam boards and regulatory bodies, and use the vast sums of money saved to reduce teachers' workloads, cut class sizes and provide for celebrations of pupils' work in science fairs, art exhibitions, history projects and so on. Then get the staff, pupils and parents to work with external moderators and advisers (teachers from other schools) who can endorse a leaving certificate that means something to those students, their families and future employers.

What we need for our exams system is not evolution but revolution. The change will be hard, but in time it will be worthwhile, giving our pupils reasons to take pride in their work, a real and tangible goal to achieve. The result will be a better all-round education for understanding - not what we have now, which is an education for sitting tests and exams.

James Williams, Lecturer in science education, Sussex University.

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