Education – Exam culture put to the Test

I taught English and Drama in local schools from 1979 to 2005. I have great memories of the classroom and enjoy seeing some of my former students go on to flourish in the wider world.

In some ways education got rather better during my years as a teacher. There was more accountability, and I guess that that probably helped raise standards amongst some teachers who lacked drive and competence. And new subjects such as A level Theatre Studies, which I introduced into my last school, helped create a broader curriculum.

However one of the tragic features of education during my career was the growing tyranny of testing and measuring which can destroy both teacher and student alike. It seems that this dire trend has continued since I left the classroom.

Exam results are of course important – and we do have to try to measure ability in a manageable, concise way. Mathematical symbols can help, though much less so in the arts and humanities than in the Sciences.

However testing students regularly, using arithmetical or A/B/C calibration poses great dangers,  Often it ends up as inaccurate and partial rather than objective or wide-ranging. Testing is especially problematic if there is an expectation that these supposedly valid results will always improve.

Incessant testing and measuring also creates anxiety and fails to leave room for variable kinds and rates of development. And although competition is a useful human instinct  exam league tables create insidiously inappropriate market place values within education, in which teachers always compete with one another and schools do the same.

During my tenure as a teacher I certainly witnessed the distorted portrayal of educational excellence – it became mechanically achieved competence, whose imprimatur was a set of top class exam grades.

There was a failure within the educational establishment to confront a government agenda that was ruthless in its attempt to turn schools into exam factories, teachers into carefully monitored trainers and students into compliant and compulsive competitors, ready for their place in a hyper-capitalist society of consumption, acquisition and obedience.

One of the pleasures of teaching Drama and Theatre Studies is that it went against this grain to some degree. All devised or scripted creativity by drama students is co-operative work. It is team work, in the studio, with all the frustration and joy of having to rely on others in acts of shared imagination.

This is very different from beating everyone else to an A grade by sitting over and over again in an exam hall full of other teenagers, parked behind lines of desks, year by year.

Perhaps the saddest thing for teachers – as for other comparable professions- is that men and women may choose this career out of a love for interaction with people, and a desire to care. The reduction of interaction to process, of creativity to knowledge management, and of excellence to busy, functional efficiency can break the spirit of many teachers, placed as they are in an environment where every  exam grade is scrutinised and every performance measured against the value of others.

If the consumer society of modern hyper-capitalism thrives through the constant generation of illusory needs that must be gratified, then dissatisfaction needs to be instilled in student and teacher alike in the modern school.

And that is precisely what happens. The student who obtains an A grade yearns for an A star. The teacher whose results are top drawer this year is under pressure to stay there next year as much as the teacher who had a bunch of fails and D grades.

Revolutionary thinking on education was required at the time when I decided to quit teaching. I believe it still is.

Philip Orr is an ex teacher, historian and playwright. He can be found @scotushibernus 

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  • Abucs

    I think there are some valid points in what you say, especially for evaluating the arts subjects. But it can get out of hand the other way and lead to worse outcomes for maths and science. Schools I have been at have taken similar ideas up and tried to implement ‘open question’ testing where there is no specific right answer. I think this has serious drawbacks in science and maths if it is used to the extreme, which I have seen it been.

    The open question ideas do have a place I feel in evaluating students as part of diverse testing strategies but students still should know that six eights are forty-eight and argon is an inert gas. The easiest way to find out if they know that is to ask them.
    Some students will be better at knowing things than others and this should be reflected in grades so that students, teachers, parents, universities and employers know which ones are which.

    We have to be careful also that such ideas are not promoted by ‘political teachers’ who see grading students as the antithesis of their guiding morality of equality, where we cannot see inequality anywhere, even in student outcomes. This does lead to a race to the intellectual bottom and produce (rightly) angry parents who have seen their kids used as social guinea pigs.

    I think if you go down the track too far with not teaching specifics and putting too much emphasis on ‘constructing knowledge’ and ‘learning processes’ it can lead to worse educational outcomes and to a dumbing down of students rather than lifting them up.

    But I agree with you that diverse testing of ‘different ways of knowing’ does have a place; that testing should not be constantly undertaken; that a goal of testing should be to gather information to help students learn better; and of course to allow teachers to see when they are getting it right and when they are not, with the way they are teaching.

  • david crookes

    “There was a failure within the educational establishment to confront a government agenda that was ruthless in its attempt to turn schools into exam factories, teachers into carefully monitored trainers and students into compliant and compulsive competitors, ready for their place in a hyper-capitalist society of consumption, acquisition and obedience.”
    Now there is one of the most brilliant sentences that I have ever read.

  • chrisjones2

    “If the consumer society of modern hyper-capitalism thrives through the constant generation of illusory needs that must be gratified, then dissatisfaction needs to be instilled in student and teacher alike in the modern school.”

    Yes ….all those needs for transport roads houses medicine travel ….all illusory

    “Incessant testing and measuring also creates anxiety” – just like real life and learning to manage that is part of the process of education

    “a failure within the educational establishment to confront a government agenda”

    So was that just a Government agenda or a demand from parents too? And children now?And what gives the ‘educational establishment’ the right to confront the policy – they are employed to provide a public service. They seem to have been OK confronting the 11+ when most parents actually WANT it

    “Revolutionary thinking on education was required” I agree because the Chinese have already caught up and the Indians and Brazilians aren’t that far behind so if you think its really terrible now just wait

  • Deke Thornton

    Externally assessed exams are the only fair medium of testing ability. Coursework and teacher assessed tests are a farce. Of course the teacher is going to upgrade their pupils as much as possible. That’s why BTEC’s are completely hopeless as a means of assessment. And their OCR equivalent’s. No employer would trust them. Universities (proper one’s -not UU or Neasden/Wolverhamton) regard them with no validity. Any ‘qualification’ that carries the word ‘studies’ is meaninglessness. By all means study Drama and Theatre. Just don’t expect the world is your oyster.

  • Abucs

    How about using the principle of equality for grading in the classroom? 🙂

  • kensei

    I know, coursework and long continuous pieces of work are a farce. That’s why dissertations and doctorates are such disastrous and never used methods of examining for tertiary education.

  • Deke Thornton

    Fair point but there’s a hell of a difference between : 1.GCSE Coursework (generally written by parents and ‘guided’ by teachers) 2.BTEC Coursework-no external assessment so the ‘students’ don’t even bother to amend the Wikipedia cut and paste… and academic research based on peer review and tested at a high level. Even then there’s a lot of waffle. Read Ben Goldacre’s book ‘Bad Science’ for how often the stats are made up at Pharmaceutical studies. However, money talks…http://www.essayacademy.co.uk/customessay.html