In the UK and across the world, exams are the main mode of assessment for students and children. Schools in England begin to assess their pupils through exams from the age of 7 in the form of Key Stage 1 SATs. Standardised tests have become the normalised method to determine academic ability within our education system, but — are exams really the optimum way to test students? Do they enable students to remember and understand the content of their studies?
Many people argue that the uniformity of exams provide an objective and sure way of testing students. I would counter, however, that the uniformity of exams are not necessarily a positive thing. The uniformity required by exams standardise the interests, capabilities and knowledge absorbed by students and children. This process of mass standardisation takes away the uniqueness and curiosity of learning that contributes to the growth of well-rounded, critical thinkers.
If not the uniformity, then surely the revision process as well as the exam papers themselves, show students how to work hard? Working hard doesn’t necessarily mean that information is being learnt and absorbed. The way that exams are structured means that in order to yield good results, students are required to memorise information and regurgitate it onto exam papers, but not necessarily understand what they are learning. An emphasis on exams as primary modes of assessment means that many students are led to focus on cramming and revising information. Preparing for exams rarely gives students the time to absorb the information they are studying, which begs the question – does our education system prioritise the comprehension of knowledge, or test results?
Many schools and universities are often too target oriented, creating ‘test-fuelled production lines‘. Increasingly, this is due to the overwhelming pressure for educational institutions to compete with one another, produce good exam results in order to meet OFSTED targets or get a good place on the national/international league tables. Sadly, meeting such targets is often prioritised over shaping and refining teaching and learning environments to nurture and broaden the minds of students.
Moreover, exams do not take into account that intelligence is a spectrum, not static. Many students who do not do well under exam conditions are branded as ‘less intelligent’ than those who achieve higher exam results. Branding students who do not perform well in exams as less intelligent is a great disservice to knowledge-seekers who do not fit the cookie-cutter mould of the UK exam industry. We need to cater for the spectrum of intellect represented by children and students, rather than forcing them into uniformity and stamping out alternative expressions of intelligence and brightness.
A lot of parents, students and educators alike feel dissatisfied with the current examination system used in this country. However, many of us fall silent on what we can do to change it. We frequently find ourselves asking – are there any viable alternatives? How to we even begin to change such an entrenched system? Change is vital to a healthy society, and right now, we desperately need it within our educational institutions. There are alternatives out there, but our government needs to be ready to actively facilitate change and integrate new assessment methods into the UK education system.