The Exam Sham: Onwards We Blindly Go

Parents pray during a candle-light vigil for their children's success in the college-entrance exam at Bongeun Buddhist temple in Seoul, South Korea,. (Ahn Young-joon / AP)

The only way you can invent tomorrow is if you break out of the enclosure that the school system has provided for you by the exams written by people who are trained in another generation. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Many schools have just concluded, entered, or are about to enter examination season. A recent feature in The Atlantic presented a fascinating visual representation of exams around the world. The piece highlights the fact that, in a world enduring constant change and upheaval, “testing—from pre-exam anxiety to post-exam euphoria—is something that oddly enough, seems to unite us all.” This assessment sidesteps the harsh reality that, for an alarming number of our young people today, pre-exam anxiety results not in euphoria, but in an end to future ambition and dreams, and often in rejection, dejection, and even suicide. The mind boggles at this ongoing phenomenon. Do teachers really need contrived, formal examinations at the end of a full school year in order to make a professional judgment – should one be required – on their students?

Let’s go back to purpose here. What were exams originally instituted for? If we are honest, it was to sort the elite minority into elite, selective institutions in order to perpetuate a hierarchy in which wealth, knowledge, and possibilities were exclusively defined, controlled, and limited. The continued existence of this institutional scenario in which students – virtually all of them at a critically vulnerable age – are forced to regurgitate or prove standardised recognition of knowledge in order to effectively demonstrate that they are better than their peers – in a time-limited, paper-based, archaic attempt to condense a lifetime of learning into several hours – is, in the majority of countries, an unforgivable indictment of our education systems and the lack of action that surrounds this relentless stupidity.

If we could step outside of this charade, even briefly … imagine, for a moment, describing the learning truth to a young person entering school: There’s 15 years of content ahead of you. It has been pre-ordained, regardless of who you are, what you like, or can do. Your teachers will genuinely care about you, but you must cover all of this content. They are capable of awesome things and will do their utmost to show you these things when they get a rare chance. Truth is, all that matters is how you are subjectively judged at the end. Welcome to school.

Society has certainly changed, this we know and are reminded of, ad nauseum. Technology has transformed the possibilities for learning and the opportunities for our young people. We are confronted with the reality of inevitable, unknown challenges and known global crises that are not going to go away with a bombing campaign or populist piece of legislation. We know that all people have the capacity to learn. We recognise that the elite selection process throws – along with the brilliant and truly bright – some of the most banal and incompetent into positions of power and influence. Knowledge is cheap today and access is virtually unlimited; the ability to create transcends the old order and requires real talent. Yet the exam system remains largely the same.

How do we get our universities to change their admissions processes so that we can liberate our teachers from the drudgery of content delivery and exam preparation? Teachers did not sign up for this. And yet, how often does the exam system manage to be the justification of those in the teaching profession who are leery of change, rightly or wrongly because, as they confidently tell us: students have to be prepared for the discipline of exams; we have to cover the content for the exams; the exams do not care about character and creativity; we all know the long list … and right now … those who voice these issues are telling a sad truth. The system is only getting worse. Teachers are being judged and schools rated based on test and exam results. How many kids are getting into Yale and Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge, we are perpetually asked. I have yet to be asked, how many of your students go to the college that is right for them? … how many are pursuing their passions? … how many are leading happy, fulfilling lives and believe that the curriculum was relevant to their daily, real-world challenges? No, we rarely ask the right questions. We follow, often blindly and sheepishly, an ancient system of selection, sorting, and dismissal. If the genuine purpose of exams – as some may honestly contend – is to demonstrate learning and academic achievement, we know there are better ways to achieve this and we also know that there will be more time to learn more deeply and creatively in the absence of exams.

Imagine an educational system in which we based our understanding of student potential and achievement upon individual interests and passions, developed and nurtured throughout the years of schooling. This is what most teachers intuitively seek to do. Imagine, then, how amazing schools could be without the false conventions of examinations and tests that are philosophically at variance with all that we know about learning and humanity. Imagine the traditionalist bereft of the Examination Excuse. The fact is, we know that we don’t need examinations for students to get into good colleges and we don’t even need good colleges to learn and be successful, so why is this absurdity still the unchallenged tail that wags the dog of our school systems?

Isn’t it time to end this madness?

Picture credit: The AtlanticExams Around the World