The problem with exams

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Regular readers of Dadbloguk will know I have been on something of an ‘educational adventure’ over the past year. I have just passed maths GCSE having taken exams (or sat assessments) three times since the first lockdown was introduced in March 2020. The experience has been fascinating and made me realise that British schools place a ridiculous amount of importance on exams.

exams, examination
Me, doing a dramatic re-enactment of the maths exams I recently sat.

What’s the issue here? What’s the problem with sitting exams?

Absolutely nothing. Exams have a place in the education system, but until the pandemic struck, GCSEs were almost entirely decided on exam performance alone.

If a student had a bad day, if they were going through a tough time at home or if they simply didn’t perform well under exam conditions, there was a very real chance they’d lose out. What I have come to appreciate over the past year is that our education system is skewed towards teaching people how to sit exams, rather than learning useful skills, developing knowledge and talent and preparing youngsters for life after school (note how I don’t say “employment,” which is just one thing they need to be prepared for).

I didn’t really give that final point too much thought until I got the results for the second exam I sat, back in January of this year. I got a grade 3. That’s effectively a fail, but I missed out on obtaining a grade 4 (a pass) by one solitary mark.

As was my right, I asked for a copy of the exam paper to see where I’d gone wrong. When I studied it, I felt awful. There was one question about measuring temperature where I’d written the correct answer on the page along with the working out.

My mistake? I’d absent mindedly written the wrong number in the small section of the exam paper set aside for answers. Put very simply, I’d written the correct answer on the page but in the wrong place. That simple mistake had cost me the one mark I needed.

If I had been five or so marks short of the grade boundary I would have understood being penalised. There’s no way someone can fall that far short of the grade boundary and expect to pass. Thing is, I wasn’t five marks short, I was one mark short. There was no mercy whatsoever, despite the fact I had demonstrated I could calculate the answer, had calculated the correct answer and written it on the paper. As I say, I’d been penalised for writing the correct answer, I’d simply put it on the wrong place on the exam paper.

By all means tell me I’m taking this way too personally, but I felt that was harsh. It reveals an exam marking system that is hidebound by rules, rules youngsters have to learn instead of learning useful skills.

The experience also got me reflecting on my own educational history. I spotted a very clear and interesting pattern.

When I first sat my GCSEs at school, the assessment was largely exam based. My results were horrendous, so bad that I spent a year at a further education college so I could take four further GCSES.

These were non-traditional subjects that were assessed by a mix of coursework and exams. This time, despite studying four new subjects in one year, my results were A,B,B C. Yes, I even got the one A grade!

A-levels followed, which were largely exam based. I passed them, but the results were ugly.

A gap of several years ensued before I returned to education and studied for a ‘degree equivalent’ qualification that was largely coursework based. Even if I say so myself, I totally aced it with some very grades

Can you see the pattern? Yup, when I sat exams, I did badly. When assessment was via a mix of coursework and exams, I did well.

My experiences over the past year have just proven this point further. I twice went through the exam-based assessment process and failed. I went to great lengths to study my exam papers and I could see that under exam conditions I made some very sloppy mistakes.

The third time it was a mixed assessment of assessed lessons, assessed work and mock exams. Not only did I make the grade, but because there were assessed lessons and coursework, I had to study the subject in depth and I swear I learned more that way.

There’s a further issue: GCSE exams are no longer simply taken in Year 11. In some schools they’re spread across Year 10 and Year 11 so GCSE exam stress lasts for two years, not one.

Also, if you’re in Year 10 and your birthday is in the summer months, you could be sitting GCSES at the age of 14. Surely we should be questioning whether this is too young for many people?

One final point. During 2020 and 2021, I think we’ve seen that assessment systems that are entirely exam-based fall apart when put under pressure. Look what happened in 2020 when Aunty ‘Rona paid a visit and the schools were closed. The exam system in England absolutely fell to pieces. It was embarrassing to see how Government responded to this.

If pupils had been assessed on an ongoing basis and had completed some coursework as part of their studies, it wouldn’t have been such a catastrophic cock-up. There would have been solid foundations to base their grades on.

Exams have their place as a way of testing your memory and recall skills. I don’t think they should be consigned to history altogether, but the education system’s reliance on them at this point on time is a massive failing. Our education system is presently far too reliant on exams and I’d like to think, once this pandemic has passed, we could take a look at how pupils’ achievements are assessed.

2 thoughts on “The problem with exams”

  1. This past couple of year really does prove that sitting exams aren’t all that. I know my eldest does well when it comes to coursework and panics when it comes to sitting exams. Her GCSE results showed that. She was one of the last years to sit proper GCSE’s before the pandemic. My youngest will be doing English lit exam in year 10 too and she will only be 14 years old, it seems so young. She’s summer born and will be sitting her year 11 exams when she is only 15. There are some kids in her year who are almost a year older than her. I think she’s going to struggle if the exams come back. x

    1. Wow, so your daughter will be 14 when she sits English Lit? That is just insane and although my eldest daughter is younger, I see such a big difference between her and older kids in her school year. The autumn babies are so much more advanced. Anyway, I hope we see an element of assessment in future. Basing everything on a couple of two hour exams is ridiculous. Best of luck to both of your children Kim.

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