Why our attitude to exams deserves an F

14th August 2015 at 01:00
We must recognise that tests are a means of assessing knowledge, not an end in themselves, argues exam board boss Rod Bristow

When the Chinese brought in a system of imperial exams more than 1,000 years ago - and when the British copied the idea in the 19th century to select people for the civil service - it was a wonderful innovation. Exams offered a way of objectifying knowledge and aptitude that, as a result of standardisation, would allow meritocracy to spread.

Of course, exams weren't perfect then and they're not perfect now. And although we can continuously improve them, they will never be perfect because they can only ever be a proxy for what people know at a certain point in time. Assessing everything that someone knows or can do would take as long as it took them to learn it in the first place.

The problem is that people too often see exams as more than that. They are viewed not as one important indicator among many but as the total definition of someone's ability - a binary predictor of success or failure in life.

Perhaps that's bound to happen in a transparent and competitive society. It's a cause for greater concern, however, when the educational establishment begins to define all worthwhile learning in terms of exam results. This is a far bigger problem, because then the examination tail begins to wag the education dog.

School systems can do a very effective job of holding teachers to account. But they can also distort behaviour in ways that are counterproductive. An accountability system that is too heavily focused on exams leads to good teaching being defined primarily in terms of test results and an ability to teach to those tests.

`Damaging' emphasis

Over the years, there has been a growing tendency in this country to hire and fire teachers and put school leadership teams under immense pressure on the basis of exam results. This is damaging. It squeezes the creativity and innovation out of teaching and the joy out of learning, and it does not help our children to acquire the knowledge that they really need.

Exams are an important indicator, but the irony is that confident schools that place less emphasis on tests often do better than schools that focus on drilling students in technique. Accountability systems should be developed to reflect the fact that exam pressure can have the reverse effect to the one intended. The new Progress 8 measure in England is a big improvement on what went before. But it should sit alongside other measures that are independent of exam results. This might sound complicated, but that's the whole point: a good education provides a range of outcomes, not just one.

This is what parents want. In a recent Pearson report, published with the charity Family Lives (bit.lyPearson ParentsReport), parents told us that exam results were way down their list of criteria for choosing a school. They were more interested in personal and social development, including how children would fare in work and life after school. Parents also communicated a clear desire to be updated regularly on learning and development throughout the academic year, instead of having a single, annual report summarising progress.

Polls of British industry reveal similar views. The latest CBIPearson education and skills survey (bit.lyPearson CBISurvey) finds that employers need education to better prepare students for the workplace. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that employers believe exam results are often seen as the only gauge of achievement.

The report clearly shows that businesses - in this instance more than 300 CBI members, reflecting an employee base of more 1.2 million - are looking for more rounded individuals with communication, teamwork and leadership skills. This balanced approach supports more than just employment: it equips people to succeed socially, too.

Students have spoken

Perhaps most significantly, young people recognise the need for change. In a Teach FirstPearson survey of 14- to 21-year-old students (bit.lyPearsonTeachFirstSurvey), respondents expressed strong opinions about end-of-year exams not being the best way to assess learning. They felt that their futures rested somewhat arbitrarily on their performance on one given day.

When students talked about what assessment methods worked best for them, most said that they wanted regular feedback to confirm that they were learning the course material and staying on target. Concerns were raised that the exam was seen as more important than the learning - that, for some schools, delivering results was more important than understanding students' personal hopes and ambitions.

Exam boards, the government and school leaders have a great opportunity (and a responsibility) to work together and listen to what parents, employers and students tell them. They need to use those views to support teachers in rising above exam-based performance measures and rejecting a narrowing of the curriculum. We should reflect these views in the way that teachers are held to account as well. Exams alone are too crude a measure.

Rod Bristow is president of the Pearson UK exam board

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