Exams get a U from me

Meg Howe discusses the failures of the traditional timed examination system, and why alternative methods of assessment may be more suitable.

Meg Howe
23rd December 2020
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

On November 10th, Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams announced that Welsh school pupils will not sit their GCSE or A-level exams in 2021. In a video posted to her Twitter account, she said that “the well-being and fairness across the system” was the central in making this decision.

This cohort of Welsh students will have their grades determined by classroom marked assessments that can be taken within a broad window of time. While all students from across the UK will have the chance to apply to any University within the Union, all exams in England are set to go ahead - they are just pushed back by a few short weeks. There is no change to the curriculum, but there are some changes in the format of assessment, with some modules being cancelled and others being given a heavier weighting in the overall grade for that student.

Not only does it seem incredibly unfair that students across the UK will be examined in different ways, yet are applying to the same universities that require the same grade boundaries, but it also raises other questions about the nature of the way we examine our students.

This year, especially, it only seems right that the Department of Education are more flexible with the forms of assessments to account for the loss of learning that many students faced while in lockdown in the spring. Yet, @educationgovuk on Twitter stated that “exams are the best and fairest way of judging a students’ performance”.

This is not right. It is known that everyone is different and therefore everyone performs differently in a range of assessment methods. That is what seems fair: to allow for students to have a choice of routes when it comes to assessing their work.

Exams put immense pressure and stress on students to remember two years-worth of information, as well as asking them to plan and write fully-formed essays in a short amount of time. We are not testing knowledge here, we are testing students ability to work under pressure, and this is not what schooling is about.

What is “fair” is to give all students the same chance at performing well; a test that allows them to show their knowledge and skills they have learnt, rather than their ability to recall facts in timed-conditions.

There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to education.

There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to education. Everyone has different experiences, many of these impacted by the Conservative governments education reforms that have created many inequalities for children of working-class backgrounds, or students struggling with poor mental health.

What should be proposed as a long-term assessment method is the chance for students to have extended periods through out the year where they focus on a mixture of practical assessments, class contributions and oral presentations. Classroom assessments done throughout the year work well in terms of allowing students to not be flustered with the daunting prospect of having to sit all of their exams within a small window in the summer.

The combination of different assessment methods also accounts for students who do not perform well under pressure, allowing them to build up their marks through out the year; gaining valuable feedback from their teachers that will help them better understand where to improve.

While the Covid-19 experience has taught us many valuable lessons, we must hope that it helps to move the way we examine our students to a much more fair and even way.

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AUTHOR: Meg Howe
Passionate History student and Educator

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