Tailoring the exam system

We teachers like to moan, and British teachers arguably do it better than most – gentle moaning is after all a favourite national pastime. At the SAGE Beijing conference I couldn’t resist a little whinge to my peers from other countries about my frustrations with examination reform in England. I launched forth with my critique of the pace of exam reform (too fast), its implementation (piecemeal and confusing), and its substance (a straightjacket that treats all subjects and all pupils as homogeneous, when they are clearly not). The other delegates listened politely, appreciating the cathartic value of my grumble. And then they too began to off-load, such that it became readily apparent that from Scandinavia to Singapore, teachers worry that assessment is out of step with learning. This is not just a UK government issue, it is a global problem.

Schools are trying to prepare students for the twenty-first century, to equip young people with creativity, the ability to work in a team, research skills and resourcefulness. They are increasingly using digital technology to deliver the curriculum in a way that empowers pupils to personalise their learning. A differentiated approach not only ensures that pupils do not get bored by tasks that are too easy or overwhelmed by questions that are too hard, it enables them, for example, to research areas of particular interest and select methods of inquiry that work best for them. Learning is becoming a more bespoke process.

This is right and good. The problem is that advances in assessment tend to lag far behind advances in teaching and learning. Put simply, while the way we teach and learn has moved on from the 1970s, the way we assess has not. Children are examined today in much the same way as their parents and grandparents were, by sitting standard papers in isolation, against a clock and using traditional ‘technology’ (also known as a pen and paper). And while learning has become increasingly bespoke, examinations remain decidedly “off the peg”.

Assessment is understandably risk-averse – so much rides on the outcomes of public exams that the integrity of the system is paramount. It is right that the grades achieved are nationally standardised against set criteria to ensure they have a known and durable value which is not subject to excessive inflation or deflation. Results must be achieved fairly and there must be no scope for malpractice. The emphasis is on stability, security and reliability.

Yet Prof Eric Mazur, of Harvard University, spoke for many of us in The Daily Telegraph when he claimed that traditional methods of assessment create an “artificial environment” that does not readily test twenty-first century skills. It is impossible to show team work while sitting amidst the silent, serried ranks of examination desks. Demonstrating creativity requires time that is not available in most exams where the onus is on the speedy recall of relevant knowledge to answer the question set. Likewise the ability to conduct robust research and draw valid conclusions does not lend itself to assessment in Spartan exam halls. As Prof Mazur points out, we expect students and employees to work together and make use of others’ expertise, yet in our current exam system that would be ‘cheating’.

How might assessments change if those setting them were permitted to be more creative? A good starting point would be to recognise that different students and different subjects have different assessment needs. Uniform papers might be fair in ensuring all candidates answer identical questions, but this homogeneous approach compromises differentiation.

In the humanities, research projects could be externally assessed through rigorous viva-style interviews, testing planning, research, report-writing and presentation skills. Maths and computer science on the other hand lend themselves to computerised adaptive testing, with candidates sitting bespoke tests generated from large question banks. Candidates could be presented with questions appropriate to how they are performing. Results might take the form of a precise number rather than a blunt grade, giving universities and employers a better insight into candidate ability. The costs of these kinds of practical improvements are modest in comparison with expenditure on the current wave of exam reform.

Across the globe teachers – rightly or wrongly – are judged by the exam results their pupils achieve. Fortunately teachers go way beyond the test in preparing students for life; what a shame the exams they sit fail to reflect the full value of what they have learnt.

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2 Responses to Tailoring the exam system

  1. David Sandison says:

    The advantage of the traditional examination is surely its setting in a room absent of distraction, prompts or reference. The education system would be the poorer without it.

    • For the reasons you give traditional examination will always form part of the assessment process. However, if we only examine by traditional means we will not assess and therefore not value important skills such as creativity, team work, communication and research which are a major part of the learning process and highly valued by employers and universities.

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