The Unexamined Life

April 3rd, 2013 by Charlie

Exam fatigue

...is not worth living, according to Plato. But what if our education system changed from being exam-centric to being structured around some other method of determining aptitude?

At present, kids in the UK are tested internally at Key Stage 1 and 3, and nationally at KS2, GCSE, AS and A Level: a total of six times. Towards the latter end of their educational careers, in the years 16-18, they face major public examinations at the end of every academic year. For students who do some GCSEs a year early, that makes four years in which their education is essentially perpetual exam preparation.

What would the education system be like without exams? We have a demonstration in the form of the US public school system. Across the pond, exams count for hardly anything at all: what matters is your GPA, or Grade Point Average. This is essentially the average of all your assignment marks, out of one hundred (although somewhat oddly you can score more than one hundred, due to more advanced courses being 'weighted' to boost your GPA). So what are the advantages of this system compared to an exam-centric one, and what drawbacks does it have?

One of the most damning criticisms of exams is that they only show what you know over a very small cross-section of time: namely, the two or three hours in which you take them. It is possible to have a really bad day, to the extent that your exam performance poorly reflects your level of knowledge; equally, it is possible (and preferable, for some people) to cram the entire course curriculum into your short-term memory the evening before the exam, and then let it evaporate once it's served its purpose. The GPA system doesn't suffer from this acute temporality: teachers typically set many small assignments over the course of the year, making it impossible to 'cheat' the system or to have one bad day's work affect your entire academic career.

The flipside of keeping a running tally of assignment averages is that one lives in a constant state of competition. The US Department of Education would argue that this competition is healthy, but some would disagree. Schools actively publish GPA rankings, and fights for a place in a High School's Top 20 (the hunting grounds of Ivy Leagues) are fierce and bitter. This is an environment where one mark in one assignment is the difference in moving up or down a rank, and as a consequence, may be the deciding factor in being given a full ride to Harvard or being overlooked. As a comparison, there is no direct competition in the UK end-of-the-year exam system: each student is fighting a private battle for self-improvement and everyone crosses the finish line together.

Admittedly, in this system, distinction between pupils is tricky to accomplish. With an increase of so-called 'grade inflation' - where it is possible for lots of students to achieve the same high grades - UK universities have turned to students' interview performance and extracurricular activities to decide which ones to offer places to.

In a way, the GPA ranking system isn't the absence of examination: it's perpetual micro-examination, which in a way could be more strenuous than taking yearly 'macro' exams. So how about a total absence of exams? We'll probably never see such a system in the Western world because our education systems are a means to a financial end: getting that job, or that place at university. If one were to take education for education's sake, school systems in the US and UK would look very different. An interesting example of such a structure lies in religious education: e.g. Sunday Schools or after-school programs teaching the Koran. These educational systems are characterised by a lack of exams, or indeed any form of assignment outside of ones to further pupils' understanding. No tallies of results are kept, and no pressure to perform is applied.

Another example of this "education for education's sake" appears in adult private tuition, especially for languages or music. The pupils are willingly learning for their own edification, and thus a climate of examination is unnecessary.

So what's the answer, when all is said and done? Perhaps, like in English Literature, there is no 'right' answer. Different people thrive in different environments, examined or not. One thing all educators could do well to not lose sight of, however, is that it's the understanding that should be the end goal, not the grade.

Categories: exams