Sometimes you just have to write…


As I sat last week watching a room full of students sweat through an exam, as I’ve done many times before, I wondered, as I’ve done many times before, why we do it. What is the point of examinations?

To see if they’ve mastered the material, you say. Okay, but so what if they haven’t? They can easily look up information on the Internet. They can easily find expert and not-so-expert analysis, if analysis is what they need.

You’ll say ‘But they need to be able to analyze and evaluate information themselves, and that’s what we’re testing.’

Fair enough; that’s worth finding out, but is that really what we’re finding out when we test? How can we be sure they’re not just regurgitating someone else’s (such as the teacher’s) thoughts?

Clearly some tests do better than others. The International Baccalaureate’s Language A tests include a section in which the students must write an ‘unseen commentary’, which means they do a close analysis of a literary text that they’ve never seen before (unless they’re extraordinarily well-read and lucky). That strikes me as a legitimate measure of skills: analysing literary devices, organizing and writing an essay, etc.

The Dutch system’s Dutch test requires students to read a text they probably haven’t seen before and summarize it within a certain word limit. That would certainly show if they’ve been able to recognize the main points of a text. Maths tests in general require students to use the concepts they’ve learned to solve problems they’ve never seen before.

My questions is more basic: why do we put them through it? Why use a TEST to see what they’ve learned? Besides the obvious misery it causes, when will they ever use their test-taking skill in ‘real life’? I’d argue that they’ll never use it again once their formal education is over.

The fact is that in the ‘real world’, people collaborate. They brainstorm, they bounce their ideas off each other, they contribute their own particular strengths to a team effort. That’s how business, medicine, the arts, the non-profit sector, even educational institutions work.

And that collaboration that leads to innovation? In the classroom, it’s called cheating. Why do we do that? We should be encouraging collaboration, not punishing it!

Any teachers reading this will say ‘But we do encourage collaboration. We assign group projects!’ That’s true, and that’s good, but we still usually finish the unit or chapter with a test, and the test usually counts at least as much as the collaborative project.

The problem, you’ll say, is the ones who ride along for free, who don’t contribute in the collaborative group. How can we know what they’ve learned if we don’t test them individually? In my view, that’s what we should be focusing on: teaching our pupils to work well in a group, giving them the skills they need so that free rides don’t happen. The child who doesn’t contribute needs to learn how, and the other group members need to learn how to approach a task and create a group dynamic that gets the best out of everyone.

But in testing students individually, we’re sending a very mixed message: working together with others is good and productive, but if you do it now, you’ll be punished!

You could argue that students who manage to get a free ride through their schooling would become a plague for any employer who made the mistake of hiring them. I suppose that’s true, but give their fellow employees some credit. A colleague who doesn’t contribute would soon enough get forced out or forced to change his behaviour. In any case, tests as we give them now don’t help us identify who will collaborate well anyway.

I understand that this isn’t going to change. Tests give the illusion of being scientific measures of students’ learning. They’re all judged the same, the points are tallied, the grade is given. It has a neatness that appeals to us. But I think we’re missing the point: what we want kids to be able to do, which isn’t passing tests.


2 comments on “Examinations


  2. Pingback: It’s all in the wrist « RACHEL'S RUMINATIONS

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This entry was posted on May 25, 2011 by in Being a Teacher and tagged , , .
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