Thursday, May 29, 2008

Don't exams stink?

Well, I'm happy: my exams are over. Last week, I spent 8 hours on trains so that I could sit two papers that will lead me, well, I don't know where, but at least one of them was interesting, and the best thing about sitting exams is that I can pass technique on to my students with a voice of considerably more authority than the voice that was based on my previous exam experience 20+ years ago. I have hit the books, worked at my study skills, annotated and digested and absorbed and internalised. I have deployed my long, medium and short term memory.

I hate exams. As a teacher I hate exams, as an administrator and marker and as a student, I hate exams. They are flaming hoops and we like poodles yap and skip our way through a series of them through life. They are reductive, unfair and unreliable. But I've been an exams officer, I have acted as an official examiner for all sorts of different types of exams (and continue to do so), and I write exams and make people sit them and mark them year in year out. I'm a gamekeeper turned poacher on this one.

Ironically, quite a lot of the reading I did in preparation for my exams was commentary from various academics and teachers on how standardisation tests don't work. Yet here I am conniving in a system which petrifies students into sitting down and jumping through their hoops. At least I have voluntarily opted to take my exams, and I pay handsomely for the privilege, both of which factors are major incentives to extracting the small finger and doing the work necessary to pass (and yes, I pretty much think I have passed, and I'll be mighty shocked and appealing to all sorts of authorities if I haven't passed because I know I answered the questions I was set and did not simply vomit onto the paper like a pelican feeding its young all the lists and bullet points that I had memorised). But why on earth do we make teenagers who have hormones and social lives to cope with do this incessant hoop-leaping business?

There are tests I have operated that I didn't like, but I could understand in terms of purpose - IELTS which is used by Australian and New Zealand immigration services to weed out those applicants who have no English, frex. But the more I see of tests and exams, the less I see the point. Yes, I suppose writing in a structured fashion to a strict deadline is a skill - but is it really that useful?

One of the reasons that I keep putting myself forward for the particular hell that is the exam marker's lot is because it gives my students access to the inner workings of the exam in a way that nothing else does. It also means that I can refine exam-passing and revision sessions down and spend more time broadening out the content of what goes on in the classroom - but argue the case as I might, I really, honestly don't understand the whole exam malarkey. Ultimately life does not come down to whether I passed my Maths O level (I know, I took O levels, I am officially decrepit, trendy tastes in music notwithstanding).

In fact, life once we start living it, has very little to do with what went on when one was 15 or 16. And exams are part and parcel of that. Of course this doesn't make it any easier on those people who cannot do exams (which is different from hating them, since hating them doesn't preclude studying and passing them). Actually, I think exams are just a modern version of initiation rites like sticking hot needles into one's lower lip, or being sent into the jungle or onto the plain with a sharp stick and one arm tied behind your back to see if you'll survive. Once you complete the task, you realise how totally meaningless it was and then get on with the rest of your life. Or of course, you didn't manage to get out of the hogtie, and you dropped your stick and the buffalo stampeded and the hyenas ate what was left of your mangled corpse. In modern terms, this means that when you fail your exams, your parents sell your mobile phone and iPod on e-Bay and either ground you for the rest of your life or kick you out altogether.

Exams are a horrible Catch-22 - if you pass them it doesn't really matter, but if you fail them, your life might as well be over. We really are so skilled at constructing rods with which to beat ourselves. I think that's what actually distinguishes us humans from animals. Obviously there is some stress for the average gazelle/stickleback/Zebra/worm because something out there wants to eat you, and for the average leopard/croc/pine marten/racoon there is that perpetual worry that there won't be enough to eat. But the stress that animals experience arises from natural appetites. They don't make up zebra-killing tests for themselves. You don't have to take Grazing 101. Maybe that's why I hate exams so much - they are just further evidence of the fundamental stupidity of human beings.


Amy said...

I hate exams. I'm very good at taking them, but I know in the long run they're worthless. As a home school parent, I never do closed book exams, except in math, and only for the basic facts and some of the more useful formulas, but synthesis has nothing to do with remembering a ton of dates, IMO.

Glad they're over.

Madeleine Conway said...

with you there!