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OP-ED: Give exams a smaller role in our learning system

  • Published at 07:54 pm July 20th, 2020
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It is time to take a fresh look at the true aim of education

A common perception among children and parents has persisted  -- that exams are the main reason for anyone to go to schools. Somehow, the whole exciting journey of learning new things, finding out interesting facts about the world, and finding out ways to solve problems that bother us, are lost and forgotten in the face of looming examination stress.

Our primary and secondary institutions of learning -- instead of focusing on education, start focusing on examinations, as if the two were synonymous. 

Or even worse, people come to believe that education without exams is pointless. These days, people are heard saying, why bother with schools if there are not going to be any examinations. Most teachers would be equally perplexed if told that they should teach, but not in order to help children pass examinations.

If so, what should schools do by way of education? In order to answer this, let us briefly examine the real purpose of education. 

I think most people would agree that education should help a person lead a better life. Better not just in terms of material conditions, but also in terms of health and moral and mental well-being. This would mean that education should help us live decently with each other and actively engage with issues concerning society.

At the most fundamental level, our individual well-being is deeply bound up with the well-being of our fellow beings and with the well-being of planetary ecosystems. Sadly in our society, schooling often promotes the opposite by actively encouraging children to think of themselves as individuals competing with each other. This competitive attitude is further sharpened by the examinations, where individuals are given grades and ranks.

One adverse impact is that students start thinking about themselves in terms of their examination scores. Isn’t this a sad form of reductionism? Each one among us is much more than our exam scores, even if we assume that the exam scores reasonably reflect our abilities in some limited areas. Truthfully speaking, examinations often do not even accurately reflect our abilities in a given school subject.

I have had so many people tell me that they never really enjoyed or even truly understood their school subjects, but had simply managed to learn the trick of scoring well in tests and exams.

Come to think of it, if school completion examinations did reflect the student’s abilities in various subjects, why would the school board and professional programs insist on another round of entrance examinations in the very same subjects? 

In our days, we had to take the full drill of a “send-up” examination, of three hours each -- then graded for every paper. Only if the aggregates reached 55% were we allowed to take the board exams.

The fact that even students seeking admission to liberal arts or pure science degrees have to take entrance tests indicates that the colleges too, do not value the scores of the school-leaving examinations. If higher education needs to be restricted, then it can be done by ranking students on the basis of their school-leaving examinations rather than making students face several rounds of entrance tests.

There has been a long-standing demand for examination reforms and the direction for these reforms has been articulated very well. Unfortunately, we seem to lack the political will to bring in much needed reforms in the exam system.

This may appeal to the bureaucratic mind-set wherein, standardized testing provides a rational way for employers to decide which employee gets placed where. However, no amount of standardized testing seems to provide us with a foolproof way of judging people’s abilities. If we admit this, we will be able to move towards flexible and adaptive systems of learning and working.

And presently, it seems that we are in the thrall of numbers and ranking. Even the pandemic has been reduced to scores -- of infections and fatalities, with states and countries being ranked and even graded in terms of alleged success or failure. It almost seems as if we don’t want to work with the incredible complexities of life and want to find a false sense of control by measuring and reducing everything to numbers. 

Scholastic exams are memory tests; in the real world, no one is going to stop you from referring to a book to solve a problem! And not everyone who takes extra papers during exams to write extra makes extra sense.

It’s time to take a fresh look at the aims of education and the very limited role of exams in true education. 

Nazarul Islam is an educator based in Chicago.

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