Media coverage about exams cancelled because of COVID-19 pays minimal attention to whether exams are the best way of assessing ability – and exactly what abilities we should be evaluating. There appears to be a ‘given’ that exams are a fair and reasonable way of finishing off more than a decade of education.

What is assessment for?

If we accept that we need some form of student assessment surely the first question is to consider what this assessment is for? On one level it is seen to separate out those with greater ‘proven’ ability from those pupils with less. In this way universities and colleges can make choices about who to accept on courses.

Although some questions might explore understanding and application exams are more about how much you can get down on paper in a defined period of time. It is therefore primarily a test of short-term memory. How many of us can remember what we learnt for A levels ourselves unless we refer to this knowledge on a regular basis so that it has become established in our long-term memory?

What exams do not assess is a student’s ability to research, evaluate and critique, collaborate in teams, or present their work well – let alone be a measure of creativity, innovation, or strengths such as learning from mistakes, making priorities or supporting others – all needed in the world of work. It is often relationships that impact on the success of organisations – as well as family and community cohesion – but that does not get a look in. If education is supposed to prepare children for life why does it leave so much out?

The problems with exams themselves

Many pupils have high levels of anxiety about taking exams and do not perform at their best under this sort of pressure. I know pupils who worked diligently and with capability all year but went into panic mode in the exam. So much hinges on three hours of memory.

Parents who can pay for private tutoring can hothouse their children to maximise their chances of ‘success’. This means that some of these students then drop out of university once they are expected to be independent and rely on their own capabilities.

There are also pupils who do not pay much attention during the year but are able to cram at the last minute and regurgitate what they have absorbed. This does not address the aligned skill of applying learning in a thoughtful and reflective way. You might wonder how some of our leaders have attained their own ‘success’ when they do not appear to have considered the potential consequences of their actions.

Students struggling with adversity in their lives do not get the chance to show what they can do across a whole year but have to be on top form for just the exam weeks. This may not coincide with a time when other things are going well. A friend failed her exams at 16 as she was nursing her mother who was dying of cancer. It took her many years to ‘catch up’ from this although her ability itself was never in doubt – she eventually became an academic.

An unintended consequence our education system is the negative affect on wellbeing for many young people The annual Good Childhood Report cites school pressure and fear of failure as a major reason for UK children being rated as the unhappiest in Europe.

Some alternatives

Teacher assessment: It is after all, teachers who know students and their capabilities the best. Of course, there is a subjective element – but this can be minimized by teachers meeting together and having a set of criteria against which they can measure both progress and performance. When I was teaching students who were not in mainstream school, we embraced a more practical life-skills approach that gave pupils credit for skills that they had demonstrated – such as communicating well in an interview situation or composing a personal statement. Their certificates would list the level of skills attained so any future employer would have an understanding of the competencies achieved by that individual.

On-going assessment: This could include some of the things that are left out of an exam system such as research, presentation, effort and learning from mistakes. A portfolio of work can be a much more comprehensive assessment of ability in both breadth and depth. Having quizzes that count towards a final grade throughout the year would be less anxiety producing that a single paper that is the only indicator of knowledge. During my training as an educational psychologist we were asked to work in teams to present seminars to our fellow students. This not only enabled us to collaborate and support each other – it also made for good learning. Finding out something and then communicating it well to others leads to stronger understanding and retention.

One way of reducing the anxiety of exams and addressing some of the other issues above is to publish questions in a week or so in advance. Revision will then be focused and reduce the impact on those who have revised for subject knowledge that does not appear on the paper.

Lost potential

Exams themselves are for the convenience of an education system which has identical expectations for all students and judges them on narrow parameters. it does not attempt to showcase the unique abilities/talents/strengths of any individual or encourage them to become the best of themselves. Some get lucky in life so that that they can eventually shine – but many others do not. This system is not only unfair – it is wasteful. We need to do better.