EDUCATION: by John KellyNews Weekly
The Great Exam Diversion
, December 2, 2000
John Kelly is a school teacher from Adelaide.
Each year around September when the Grand Final is over, when new birds sing and buds break into bloom, the button is pressed on the Stress Machine: banner headlines in the press and articles featuring fretful students and peer panic abound. The bogey? Public examinations.
Each year, too, the commotion is noisier than the previous year's, with advocates for abolishing exams bleating louder than ever: mainly educational experts and apparatchiks who, with Neo-Marxist fervour, conceive the purpose of education to be the production of equal outcomes.
Sensationalising student stress over exams is, of course, a useful means of papering over the embarrassing and growing failure of many students to meet the continuous requirements of non-publicly examined courses, introduced as alternatives to publicly examined subjects. Teachers who expressed criticism and concern at this innovation were branded obstructionist and elitist. There was with no real attempt on the part of those who substitute modish mantras and slogans for argument to address the obvious question as to how students (for whom there were once jobs) lacking the motivation, aptitude or ability to prepare themselves for exams, could be expected to succeed in continuous assessment courses that would more glaringly expose the very inadequacies that purportedly 'disqualified' them from success in examinations.
It was all a matter of changing obsolete and oppressive structures. Nature would automatically follow suite, especially if the awarding of marks were scrapped in primary and middle Schooling and used as a lever to topple exams at the senior end.
Exams, though, are not the real problem: they, in fact, provide focus, purpose and incentive for students to perform according to reasonable standards and expectations. Indeed, they are an opportunity for students to demonstrate and be recognised for skills and knowledge they have developed and acquired, and to discover deficiencies to be overcome in their learning. Moreover, as an instrument of assessment, exams reinforce the central importance of knowledge.
For too long there has been a misplaced emphasis on methodologies and process, vaunted above their role as ancillary to subject matter or course content.
Simultaneously, there has been a significant move away from discrete traditional subjects in Primary and Middle Schooling towards "integrated" courses whose real effect is to dilute depth and weaken the mastery of skills peculiar to specific subjects. The resilience of subjects such as History, Geography, English and Religion to ideological capture, as well as students' ability to think critically from the perspectives knowledge in such subjects affords, is severely impaired.
The idea of a hard-wrought, worthwhile body of knowledge and skills proper to it is undermined. In practice, cumbersome projects with lengthy intervals between their setting replace shorter, more frequently set and assessed assignments, despite the latter being more conducive to the development of regular work habits and the detection and remedying of literacy and numeracy problems before they become ingrained.
It is quite remarkable that exams are assuming their current fetish status. It is doubtful that students have ever had it better, at least in respect of facilities and opportunities at school. Long gone are the days when school libraries were a single shelf in an ill-lit, multi-purpose hall. Excursions and camps are plentiful. In most, if not all schools, students have access to computers. Those with learning difficulties are identified early and provided with appropriate support. Programs for students deemed "gifted and talented" are commonplace. Many schools offer attractive and rewarding exchange programs. Arguably, the exam system has never been fairer.
Moreover, contrary to the hyperbole and histrionics of "... the pressure on thousands of students who stake their future on a final three hour exam" (Sunday Mail, 12 November, 2000), students who fail exams have many conduits into tertiary institutions, just as they have many opportunities for success in schools that increasingly offer an extraordinarily comprehensive range of curricular and co-curricular options.
Serious, committed students, who form the large majority, and competent teachers, do not regard exams as the issue. The real problems lie elsewhere: a consumerist ethos that promotes the idea of instant gratification and easy success; the political inertia that manufactures slick slogans ("The Clever Country", "The Information Society", etc.) but few manually intensive jobs; and the breakdown of stable family structures for which no schooling system can compensate.