Opinion – A Counter Argument To Proposed Changes In High School Exams.

Word reaches our shell-like ear (courtesy of the Wonkhe Daily update forwarded by my head of department) that education advisers in Scotland are considering the current system of exams. Like a lot of us, they’ve been forced to adapt their system of assessment for the time of Covid. Like every part of the education sector, secondary education had to react fast to this year’s lockdown, and to find alternative ways of assessing students in the absence of formal exams. However, while I can’t wait to get back to assessing student’s work through a face to face discussion while viewing their portfolio (right now we’re having to examine Powerpoint presentations), a lot of folks are wondering if there’s anything advantageous in the emergency system that could carry over into normal life – whenever that might start to happen.

That brings us to the International Council of Education Advisers report 2018-20, specifically to pages 13-14 and the section entitled “Reform of Assessments and Examinations”. At the top of page 14 the report lays out its position that “High school examinations are essentially an out-of-date 19th and 20th century technology operating in a 21 st century environment of teaching and learning. Digital technology is transforming our capacities for self-assessment, peer assessment, shared assessment and continuous assessment.”. A little further down the page comes the further news that – “There may still be components of sit-down examinations, but if these are based on a wide menu of changing, problem-based questions, these can be taken and retaken like driving tests, as needed, throughout the year, rather than in in a one-time, high-stress, win/lose moment.”

Here’s where I begin to disagree with the folks quoted above. Some of the most important moments of your life will be of the “one-time, high-stress, win/lose” variety. That’s the case for any of us, and more so for people in certain jobs. For someone examining a career in medicine, law enforcement, the military, areas of high-speed commerce, systems management, civil aviation, the emergency services etc etc – well the ability to be placed in a high-pressure environment, and then remember what you’ve been taught and start applying it is an important one. And the sooner people start getting used to it the better. And even outside of that, stress happens in real life. The parallel is drawn to a driving test – something that can be repeated. Well and good, but a practical driving test is a test of whatever gets thrown at you, and it needs to be – it’s preparation for the real thing!

I don’t disagree in principle with the idea of changing how tests are delivered, but I think attempting to remove stress from the system might not work so well as might be thought. Some students may do better without it. Others (like me) may find the pressure an effective motivator. The point I’m making here, is that while you may be able to remove stress from many areas of education, you cannot remove it from real life, and if one is meant to be preparation for the other then it has to mirror it at some level.

Did I take exams? Yep – at every level from junior school SATs to the final year of my BA. Were they stressful? Yes. Did I enjoy them? No, not really. Were they a good preparation for later life….

I’m not a soldier or a doctor or an airline pilot, and nowadays I dwell in the ivy clad halls of academia (kinda) so it’s possible I don’t know from truly stressful situations. The nearest I’ve come was the couple of years I spent working as a doctor’s receptionist. That’s not the worst example – I met a lot of people during the worst week of their lives, and stressful situations did occur. It’s also a good example because there wasn’t really any training – I was introduced to the computer system and that was about it. The only experience of working in stressful environments that I had to bring to the table was what I had from education, and in terms of working under stress, exams will be a useful introduction. The ability to put aside the external pressure and work through a problem was a pretty useful one.

And I think if we remove that experience from education, then we might just be doing a disservice to those being educated. “one-time, high-stress, win/lose” situations cannot be removed from life even if they can be removed from aspects of education. And if they can’t be avoided, then we need to teach people to deal with them.

The author is indebted to the editorial staff of Wonkhe Daily for bringing this report to my attention. The full report of the International Council of Education Advisers can be viewed via the link below.

International Council of Education Advisers Report 2018-2020 – gov.scot (www.gov.scot)

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