A second lockdown began on Thursday, and we have been left questioning the safety of allowing students and teachers to enter schools. With Covid cases on the rise across the UK since September, it’s hard to ignore the impact that opening schools must have had.
With this in mind, there is a clear case to be made for the termination of exams this year. SATS, GCSEs, A Levels: everything that could be adding to the deteriorating mental health of our young people.
Exams Don’t Work
What we have in the UK currently are a set of Standardised Tests. This essentially means that all students take the same test in the same way and have to write the same answers. Excellent. That gets all of that out of the way. Except they’re flawed.
Under the current National Curriculum, there are more exams than ever before. Imagine, if you will, being in school in 2018 (before the pandemic). You’ve just entered year 10, and you have to take English, Maths and Science. On top of this, you have to choose a language (French), humanity (History), art (Music) and technical subject (Computer Science). Some schools require you take Religious Studies, so you take that as well. You also take PE, which is compulsory, so you decide to make that an option as well. All in all you have 9 GCSE subjects. That’s the average that students take in England. How many exams do you think that should be?
I’ll give you a minute. It stumped me, and I teach most of these topics in one way or another.
Twenty seven. Those subjects add up to twenty seven exams. Only two of the options have coursework, music and PE, so three of the assessments are performance based.
To give the government its dues, it has dropped an exam from most subjects this year to be able to accommodate for the lack of learning during the last lockdown. The still leaves roughly twenty exams for students that haven’t had time to learn how to answer the test. That’s the main problem with standardised testing – you have to be taught how to answer it. It promotes conformity and lacks common sense in some ways. Even worse, it hinders students that have additional learning needs or come from a disadvantaged background as they don’t have the resources to be able to answer the questions the way they need to. It’s a biased system built for the masses.
Don’t get me wrong, standardised tests are a great way to measure how a large number of people interpret information and regurgitate it. England’s system is also one of the best, allowing for extra learning and diversity in some topics. However, it doesn’t allow for creativity, freedom, or individuality. In a time where students are being herded through school like cattle, it’s more important now to be able to show them that they are capable of so much, despite being so anxious.
What could be done instead?
So, if exams are abolished next year, what could be done instead? There are a number of assessment options that could ease the pressure and still show the full scope of students’ abilities.
Undertaking coursework could be the best way to show understanding and incorporate rigid assessment similar to exams. English is the obvious subject where this could benefit. By writing a creative and informative piece, the last part of the exam is covered. This could be done in a timed setting, perhaps in lesson, where students are comfortable, and then handed in and marked separately, like the exams are. Any humanity could benefit from this, as well as languages, and even certain art subjects. By being able to plan and prepare, it also builds essential planning skills that are needed for the working environment that students aren’t taught anymore.
Speaking and Listening/Presentation
Presentations are daunting for anyone. Many adults still look back on their time at school and shiver thinking about their speaking and listening exams. Now, they don’t hold any weight. You get a certificate, but it doesn’t contribute to your final score. By adding this element, it could take the pressure off students that don’t perform well in written expression. All subjects could benefit from a spoken element, and it prepares students for the real world. There may be times they are required to give presentations at work. Even knowing formal language to be able to interact with higher ups. This is definitely something that should be considered as an alternative to exams, not only for 2021, but the future as well.
Project based learning
Similar to coursework, but more progressive, project based learning is a great way to show understanding of a topic. Not only that, but this method of assessment can show where the learning took place as you can see from the first to last piece of work real progression. This is also a really creative way of learning. For example, having a creative writing portfolio filled with colour, original work and a variety of pieces shows more about a person’s understanding of multiple topics than one piece based on a topic that a student may not be familiar with. We can’t all be Stephen King, amazing authors across all genres. Some students excel in horror, some excel in thriller, some have excellent speech work, some are poets. Why do we limit students to one medium, when our most hailed literary genius was a script writer and poet?
Should exams be banned?
The million dollar question: should exams be banned?
We need to take a good hard look at our education system and what is happening across the country. Where are the anomalies? Who is excelling? Are there systems outside the traditional that are working better?
We know for a fact that exams cause stress and are based on memory. We also know that exams get harder. Parents all over say they struggle with their children’s work, and they did perfectly fine in their exams. That’s because more content gets added as we discover more.
Exams can be useful as well. They show the standard response to answers across a population, therefore showing a standard to which everyone should be at. This is good in its own way, but has it gone too far?
Stopping the exams this year could be beneficial. It could also be confusing. There are so many unknowns, and without processes put in place to assess properly, it could be more beneficial to drop several exams and go off teacher assessments. Starting this early in the year would allow students time to adjust and perform well, rather than revising excessively two weeks before their exams and maybe doing well. It will allow them time to perform well in their mocks and take them more seriously. Overall, it would help them be more prepared for whatever they have to face.
What do you think? Should exams be banned? What else could be done to assess students fairly? Let us know, we’d love to hear your thoughts.