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The tale of exams – Are they really here to stay?

With exams under review owing to the impact of Covid on the education system, Olivia speculates on the future of exams.

History narrates one of the first standardized exams as the Imperial Exam for Chinese Civil Service admission. During the mid-Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD), the exams were intended to facilitate social mobility. Anyone from farm laborers to those born into noble families could take the examinations, thereby bettering their opportunity in life. Those who toiled over complex notions, abstract reasoning and mathematical equations were praised and upheld as the brightest minds in society.

Today, American students will take on average 112 standardized tests throughout their education (from around age 4-5 to 17-18), and that doesn’t include any further education assessments.

For some, exams are a source of anxiety, pressure and expectations making the education journey a roller coaster of highs and lows. My life has been punctuated with defining academic results. The first, age just 11, having won a place at a Grammar school, then to GCSEs, my A level results, each year of undergraduate summer exams, to finally, at the age of 25, completing a master’s dissertation. I saw each exam as a steppingstone to get me to the next chapter, and the better I could do, the more options I would have.

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However, as Carl Morris, Principal at Carfax College in Oxford, reasons ‘there is no one size fits all solution to education and exams are not the most effective assessment tool for many students’. In line with other educationalists, he believes there is scope to explore a system of centre assessed grades. Although reflecting on the way in which the UK handled exams this summer amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Morris added, “if the centre assessed grade scheme this summer has shown us anything, it is that we are not yet ready for the alternative to exams. Despite schools putting together robust systems to compile portfolios of evidence for their students, exam boards were left trying to resolve issues of inflated grades and teacher bias by implementing an algorithm which ultimately didn’t work and had to be dropped".

Carlamarita Hazelgrove, a Dubai-based Science and Maths Tutor for Carfax offers her perspective on open book tests, a method of assessment favoured by universities this summer in light of the pandemic, “I personally do very well in exams, but not everyone expresses their academic potential in the same way. Open book tests do have a lot of potential. In reality, there are very few instances where you cannot verify a claim or fact, so an open book test relieves the time pressure often associated with exams and is a more realistic way of assessing knowledge and skills”.

Many education systems and institutions around the world focus on getting students “exam ready” as opposed to pushing them to nurture curiosity. This can sometimes leave students wondering why they are even studying certain subjects and how they fit in the ever-shifting world around them. With alternative assessments, there is a multitude of methods that may elicit a student’s creative capabilities, for example, a presentation to the class or a debate, a letter to a friend explaining a problem or concept, a poem play or dialogue, or even a newspaper article that might later be pitched for publication.

Many Carfax Tutors note that “all too often we hear from students who have had their questions answered with “that’s not on the syllabus” instead of using them as opportunities to learn.” They value the fact that as students move towards higher education and start to narrow their academic focus, the most useful skills they can learn are creative problem solving and independent research. The prescriptive nature of exams means that more time is often spent on exam technique and regurgitating information rather than developing these essential skills.

As Carl Morris comments “In an ever increasingly digital world where everyone has an encyclopaedia in the palm of their hands, the focus should be much more on personalised education in order to teach students how to learn”.

As Fiona, Head of Carfax Education comments, “exams are currently the best assessment tool we have and do seem to work for the majority of students and stakeholders in the education system. But the most important thing is that we do not hold exams up as the ultimate purpose of education, they should only ever a tool for measuring progress.”

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