SHOULD examinations be abolished? Decades ago, this was a popular and almost mandatory essay topic in secondary school. Every book of “Model Essays” had this on its list of essay topics and many passionate arguments around this theme were heard on the student debate stage.
Interest in this topic has remained steadfast throughout the decades in our school system although the lines between different forms of assessments, tests, and evaluations are not always clear. We don’t see the word “abolished” used very much in this context anymore.
After all, “abolish” is a rather strong word, often associated with heavier issues like governments and laws. And abolishing examinations in the broadest sense of the word may seem unthinkable.
After all, isn’t that what schools are meant for in the first place – to provide avenues for students to take examinations? And isn’t that the main job description of teachers? Many of us grew up indoctrinated into that belief all through our schooling life.
The journey of our schooling system
As children, we were used to the inevitable questions or comments by well-meaning relatives or friends: “What standard are you in now? When is your exam? What was your class position? Study hard, get good marks in the exam.” This was usually accompanied by a little tousling of the hair, a pat on the back, a smile. Hardly anyone ever said: “Enjoy school life, learn all you can, soak in all the knowledge, be curious, ask many questions, be polite, learn to be a good friend.” Nevertheless, many of us managed to have enjoyable school experiences, develop skills, and learn a lot more about life besides what was formally taught to us in the classrooms.
There was the “exam season” when we went around with our noses in revision notes, the last-minute cramming (for some), the nervous anticipation, the competition for the highest test scores or grades.
Then, there were the other parts of school life where learning occurred informally – the non-academic activities, school trips, games, concerts, drama, the fun with friends. We had our monthly and term examinations, report cards denoting our test scores, grades and class positions, and yes, we still managed to have equally huge chunks of fun in school.
At some indefinite point in the journey of our schooling system, a shadow seemed to have crept in and begin looming uneasily over school life. The examination part began morphing into a life form of its own and started engulfing everything else. Gradually, everything related to school began to be centred around examinations and other activities fell off into the peripheral areas – things to be gotten over quickly in order to return to the “real” business of schools, which was the preparation of students for the major examinations.
Teachers were gauged by the quality of their students’ examination performance. The more “straight As” students the school produced, the better the school was perceived to be. If something wasn’t going to be tested or be part of the major examinations, then there was no point “wasting” time over it.
Tuition classes mushroomed and flourished as parents frantically herded their children there, to be better prepared for the examinations. Even three-year-old children lugged backpacks to tuition classes after day care.
Distorting the true purpose of education
Education planners became increasingly concerned about the unbalanced emphasis on major examinations, which was slowly gnawing at the essence of school and distorting the true purpose of education. The presence of so many young people who, despite having gone through the school system and having graduated from institutions of higher education, lacked fundamental communication and critical thinking skills, rang further alarm bells.
Systems were revamped and alternative forms of assessment introduced. Continuous and classroom-based assessments for learning and development were encouraged to help teachers modify and prepare classroom teaching and learning according to their students’ needs. Teachers were reminded that formative assessment was just as important as summative assessment, or the big written examination at the end of everything.
Class positions were no longer deemed necessary because we didn’t want any student coming away with low self-esteem, feeling that they were at the bottom of the class. Differentiated forms of testing were encouraged to match different learning levels and needs.
The truth is that despite all the attempts to move towards assessment for progressing learning and informing teaching, it is still the major summative examinations that are calling the shots.
Perhaps it is because for too long, the entire education system has been focused on the idea that examinations reign supreme. The uneasy question is, would there be quality teaching and learning in schools if most of the major examinations were scrapped? Would the joy of learning for learning’s sake once again be revived in classrooms or would teachers suddenly feel crippled, having lost their foundation for teaching? Would they be able to independently assess their students to help them learn better and to help themselves teach better?
And on another note, how important are examination scores, positions and grades for a student? While it is never pleasant to find yourself at the bottom of the class, it may compel you to work harder to move upwards and not remain there.
I remember a time when it was these positions and grades that made us work that much harder in class; when that one mark which made the difference between an A and a B grade or a pass and a fail was so important. I remember the counting and recounting of test scores, how classmates checked each other’s test scripts to make sure that “teacher had marked our tests correctly”. We were
brilliant at peer assessment even then, simply because our positions depended on it. Top of the class and top of the form were enviable positions and worth striving towards.
So, not having grades or positions, while easing out potential feelings of demotivation, could also be unfair to others. It is like being in competitions where after so much effort and training, you are told that everyone is a winner and that there are no positions. It is also a disservice to those who have done poorly because they will never really know where they stand in the true picture of the situation.
So, is the thought of doing away with major school examinations in any way linked to the fear of not winning, or a preference to be in denial of true achievement or potential? Should they be removed from the system to give more place to assessments that actually develop both learner and teacher and help to further the truer cause of education?
While it seems unlikely that the major or public school examinations will be scrapped in the near future, we should keep them in the right perspective to prevent clouding the other crucial aspects of school life.