I have always done well in exams. It was drilled into me. You do well in exams, you get better grades, and you get a better job. I felt so proud having dedicated weeks of little free time for a higher number on my exam results.
Yet, recent disruption to exams has prompted debate about their efficacity. School exams were cancelled. As were some university exams, while some went ahead online. This year has shown how quickly we can innovate and change old habits, why has it not spread to exams?
First, we need to define the aims of assessment to evaluate exams. I suggest assessment should fairly evaluate each student. It should be appropriate for the course and to prepare for the world of work. It should give the student the best opportunity to showcase their learning.
So, let’s see how exams stack up against this criteria. Critics say a student’s performance over years boiling down to a few hours of tests is unfair. Bright students who crumble under-pressure are penalised. Unfortunate circumstances on the day, like bereavement or health issues, can derail everything. High-stakes exams often increase mental health problems. We waste time learning exam technique and working ‘smart, not hard’. This knowledge is then useless for the rest of our careers. If we even retain that knowledge. We memorise, regurgitate, and then forget in the euphoria when exams are over.
So, let’s evaluate the alternatives to exams. Coursework can be equally as stressful. Having continual assessments means you always have to be on top of your game. At least the stress of a traditional exam is over in a few hours. Whereas you can worry about coursework over weeks. There is no excuse if it is not your best work: You had ages to perfect it. We expect exams. We’ve been working so hard for them. It would be unfair to change what we thought we were signing up for.
Wealth inevitably affects exams. Those from richer families can afford tutoring and laptops. The socioeconomic influence was highlighted last summer. Schools were allowed to grade their own students. Teachers gave A* grades to 13.9% of pupils, compared with 7.7% who got that grade in 2019. Ofqual lowered grades after weighing students’ results and their schools’ past performance. So those from poor-performing schools were punished. The government eventually let teachers’ grades stand.
There is more pressure on these students, now at university, to prove themselves in exams.
To those that argue working under pressure mimics working life, I would agree, some stress is useful. Some stress means I submitted this article before the deadline. But no one should have to deal with excessive stress, either while studying or at work.
Having better results has opened more doors for these students. Due to disrupting protests in 1968, France relaxed exam requirements for its 18-year olds. This cohort got more degrees and professional jobs than those before or after them. This highlights how much of our lives depend on grades. Yet, also, how weak the system is.
Even the government admits the ridiculousness of exam grading. The chances the number one marker gave you will be the same mark that another would give is 96% for subjects like maths. Yet, for subjective, essay-based subjects this falls to 55%. This disparity is inherent in essay subjects at degree level, too. It is dangerous when we have sharp grade boundaries. Whether you get those extra, few marks that push you up a degree classification depends on the pure luck of who marks your work.
In 2013, the accountancy graduate employer, Grant Thornton, removed the requirement for a 2:1. They found recruits who did not achieve high in their academics were just as successful in professional exams. This also led to better diversity.
We should not place so much importance on grades in the first place. It does not translate to how well we can do a job.
There is no perfect method of assessment. Trying to give jobs to those who have worked hard in school is better than to those who have parents in the industry. But the current system still disadvantages those from underprivileged backgrounds. Students’ home lives are interfering more with their education because of forced distance learning. Your parents’ dodgy Wi-Fi should not have a negative effect on your results. But, perhaps, it is inevitable.
But there is something we can control: we need to stop tying our self-worth to our performance in exams. It is not a useful indicator of how clever we are, or necessarily how hard we have worked. Exams aren’t everything.