In defence of exams

by Matthew Marr

It’s not hard to find reasons to criticise the exam system. Some say it’s unfair to base a child’s future on a two hour test. Others argue exams cause major stress to pupils. So for many it’s an open and shut case: exams are a negative influence and should be removed from the Scottish education system. Except it’s not nearly as simple as this (and in fairness, not all critics of exams believe it is).

The reality is that there are many strengths in the exam system, and any changes to pupil assessment must not lose these. The first benefit is that of assessment consistency: exams are a single, coherent way of measuring pupil progress. It does not matter which school you attend or your background, all pupils will sit down at the same time to complete the same exam under the same conditions. Some pupils may have been better prepared than others, but at that moment every pupil is in the same boat.

This especially limits the chances of cheating, which is not always the case for other assessment methods, such as coursework. Coursework can be more open to external influence, whether teacher or perhaps parent or tutor. Pupils may not all get equal preparation time for this either.

Exams are also relatively easy and consistent to mark (albeit that the exact standards could possibly be made clearer to all teaching staff). For pupils this means they can easily be given feedback specific to their work, and how to improve.

Furthermore, having a central team of markers – trained to national standards and whose work is moderated – ensures a mainly consistent approach. All of this leads to reliable grading, something which is more challenging when it comes to coursework. For instance, other countries which have a greater reliance on internal assessment have found that having more assessors can lead to varying application of standards. In New Zealand, the Certificate of Educational Achievement has been criticised in the past for instances where 25% of assessments were wrongly marked. A greater emphasis on coursework would require much more spending on education. It is unclear if such investment will be forthcoming, or even if it is, if assessment changes would be the priority for such money.

A further benefit is that exams teach pupils various skills which are useful in their lives, including in the workplace. The ability to quickly recall information, express clear understanding of this, and work to time deadlines are all useful aptitudes. In addition, preparation for exams teaches independent working and self-discipline, all of which will aid pupils in their future lives.

The current system also helps prepare those pupils who will need to sit exams in future. Exams are a key part not only of the university system, but also many workplace qualifications (such as law, medicine and accountancy). Without changes to these systems, removing or substantially reducing exams’ place in schools may limit pupils’ future options. This could potentially even exacerbate – rather than reduce – inequalities between different groups. If state schools lessen their reliance on exams, private schools may choose to do the opposite, giving private pupils a possible advantage.

None of this is to say that the current system is perfect and should not be reformed. Most SQA qualifications have a split between a final exam and some sort of assessment or portfolio. It may be that the weighting of these is not right, with too much emphasis on the final exam. This could be altered in various ways.

One option – certainly controversial! – which would keep the benefits of the current system could actually be to have more exams. Instead of an end-of-year exam giving 80% of marks, why not two exams at different times, each of which focus on different skills? Doing this whilst retaining a coursework element would give pupils more chances to succeed, and make a single ‘bad day’ much less damaging.

Equally, more marks could be allocated to assignments and projects, and these could even be assessed in a revised way. For instance, languages have spoken elements. Why should this not be extended to other subjects – such as History or Modern Studies – where pupils have to explain and describe their research projects?

Exams can also be used to tackle the problem of unconscious bias in marking. A blind marking system could be introduced for exams. This would mean pupils would no longer be identified by name/school but instead just candidate number. This can guard against potential biases (positive or negative) that a marker may have, as opposed to a coursework system where teachers know pupils.

The simple reality is that all forms of assessment carry with them drawbacks. Exams undeniably have weaknesses, many of which are mentioned earlier in this article. Ending – or even hugely reducing exams’ role – may bring certain improvements, but this is likely to be at the cost of new problems too.

The strengths of exams are clear: they allow for uniform assessment conditions regardless of pupil background, make it harder to cheat, teach pupils useful skills and help many pupils in their future plans.

By all means let’s talk about change and how to do things better. But only if we retain these strengths too.

Matthew Marr teaches history in Ayrshire, and tweets @MrMarrHistory

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1 thought on “In defence of exams”

  1. Great article. It’s far too easy to bash exams and say that because kids get anxious/stressed (ie nervous) they should be banned. Is there anything wrong with instilling discipline to sit down, put your phone away, and study for a while? If we remove every piece of difficulty our children will not be able to cope with the real world and all its stresses

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