It's time to get smarter about exams

Asian school kids. Photo Credit: Debdatta Chakraborty

 

When the Chinese invented exams over a thousand years ago, and the British copied them in the nineteenth century to select people for the Civil Service, they were a wonderful innovation. A way to ensure a more meritocratic society, to objectify knowledge and aptitude that as a result of standardisation allowed meritocracy to spread.

Of course they weren't perfect then and they are not perfect today. And, while we can continuously improve them and make them better, they'll never be perfect because they can only ever be a proxy for what people know at a point in time. Assessing everything that someone knows or can do, would take as long as it took to learn it in the first place.

The problem however, is that people too often see exams as more than that; too often they are seen not as one important indicator among many, but as the sum total definition of knowledge and ability, a binary predictor of success or failure in life.

Perhaps that's bound to happen in a more transparent and competitive society. Of more concern however, is when the education establishment itself also begins to define all worthwhile learning only in terms of exam results. That is a far bigger problem, because then the examination tail begins to wag the education dog.

School accountability systems can do a very effective job in holding teachers to account. But they can also distort behaviour in ways that are counter-productive. An accountability system that is too heavily focused on exam results leads to good teaching being defined primarily in terms of those test results; to an ability to teach to the test.

Over the years we've seen a growing tendency in this country to hire and fire teachers and to put school leadership teams under immense pressure on the basis primarily of exam results. This tendency is damaging. It squeezes the creativity and innovation out of teaching and the joy out of learning. It does not help our children acquire all the knowledge they really need.

Of course exams are an important indicator, but the irony is that those confident schools that give them less emphasis often do better in them than less confident schools which focus solely on exam technique. School accountability systems should be developed in ways that take into account the fact that the pressure they exert can have the reverse effect to the one intended.

In the UK, our new Progress Eight measure is a big improvement on what went before. But it should sit alongside a basket of other measures, independent of exam results. That might sound complicated, but that's the whole point; a good education provides a range of outcomes, not just one.

This is what parents want. In a recent Pearson report[1] published with Family Lives, a charity that supports families to improve the outcomes for over 1 million children each year, parents told us clearly that exam results were some way down their list when choosing a school for their child. They were more interested in their personal and social development, including how they'd fare in work and life after school. Parents also showed a clear desire to be updated regularly on their child’s learning and development throughout the academic year, instead of having a single, annual report summarising their child’s progress.

This view is also reflected strongly in the views of British industry. The latest CBI/Pearson Education & Skills Survey[2] finds that employers are looking for education, above all else, to be a better preparation for the workplace. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise but employers believe, too often the emphasis is placed squarely on academic exam results as the only gauge of education achievement.

The report clearly shows that employers – in this instance over 300 CBI members reflecting an employee base of over 1.2 million – are looking for more rounded individuals with skills such as communication, team-working, grit and leadership. This more balanced approach supports more than just employment; it equips people to succeed socially too.

Students have spoken

Most significantly though, students themselves recognise the need for change. In a Pearson/Teach First survey[3] of students aged 14-21, young people expressed strong opinions about end of year exams not being the best way to assess learning. They felt their future rested arbitrarily on their performance on one given day.

When students talked about what assessment method worked best for them, most said they wanted confirmation they were learning the course material and staying on target. They consistently conveyed the need for regular feedback. There were concerns from some that the exam was more important than the learning; that delivering results counted more to some schools than understanding their personal hopes and ambitions.

Exam boards, government and school leaders have a great opportunity but also a responsibility, to work together to listen to what parents, employers and students tell us and to use these views to support teachers to rise above exam based performance measures, to reject a narrowing of curriculum around exams. We should reflect these views in how teachers are held to account, too. Exams alone are too crude a measure.

​Rod Bristow is​ President of Core Markets for Pearson, including Pearson's UK exam board

[1] A New Conversation with Parents: How can Schools Inform and Listen in a Digital Age: Pearson/Family Lives, 2011

[2] Inspiring Growth: CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2015

[3] My Education Report: Pearson, 2013