Every year there is a public spectacle around “results day”. Young people are photographed in elation and in misery. After all, never have the stakes been so high. Sure enough, the media is on hand to whip everyone into a lather and few seem to observe that it has little new to say year-on-year. Rather, something along the lines that we should applaud the successes of our young while at the same time, given how many more have gained higher results, we must suspect there must be some inflation to the grades; that the examinations must be getting easier. This year, there are claims for even more indignation, it would have us believe. The examination system has been changed so quickly and so radically that students and teachers no longer know how to ensure these high grades anymore. When hard work provided assurances of good rewards, students were already under enough stress but to limit these assurances mid-stream is putting an unacceptable mental strain on our children.
I want to make an unpopular suggestion. To a large extent we have signed up to this treatment. Not always knowing the consequences but when you accept a national curriculum, league tables for your school to enter and high-stakes assessments then you undermine your criticism when it does not go so well for you. But worse, protesting about the deleterious effects formal examinations have on students seems to me too little too late. If it were the only significant part of their schooling, then they would quickly get over it. But it pales as an event compared to the damage that schooling as a whole has done to the majority of children. What is particularly objectionable about these examinations is that they simply do not assess student knowledge or ability to anywhere near the extent that is claimed.
When assessment does not do what it says, why does it endure? Either we do not realise it does not or it serves some other purpose. Summative examinations do not assess knowledge of an object but knowledge of itself, so students are rewarded for their knowledge of an examination not knowledge of and reasoning in a given subject. Paradoxically, we do not know this fact and we do know this fact. If we knew this, we should reject it as a discredited means of selection. Yet we acknowledge its limitation, not least because we can maximise yield by playing the system. This is what all teachers compete to do when they are teaching to the test. And who could blame them with so much pressure while their managers are waiting to assess them every bit as ruthlessly? Of course, a large volume of material is processed by candidates for these high stakes tests. Assessment, then, is happening but what kind of judgements are being made? Certainly, factual recall about highest common factors, about Runnymede in 1215 or about the circle of fifths. Much less how far can the student make novel inferences about the fundamental theorem of arithmetic, about the rule of law or about musical harmony, unless they were instructed specifically in these in advance. Students are trained with endless rehearsals using past papers to recognise cues to which they respond with some memorised routine. Throughout the year I am queried in the classroom; “will this be in the exam?”, ”do I have to know the proof of this theorem for the exam?” or even “about how many marks is this worth in the exam?”.
Questions like these do not betray a laziness on the part of the student so much as a need to comply. A tacit contract has been undertaken. “Tell me what to do and if I carry out your instructions to the letter I can expect to be rewarded with assessment credit”. Given that, it seems that learning about the credit system is one of the most important lessons a student can learn. The value of this credit is not in its immediate use but for some future exchange. Nevertheless, that still implies an intrinsic value and many teachers and employers are surprised how little a grade A student can come up with. (It is a shame they do not spend more time discovering how intelligent some grade E students can be as well.) Over 40% of A level mathematics candidates have been achieving A or A* but not because the examinations have been getting easier or because the teaching has improved but simply because a good A level in the subject has become an increasingly sought-after commodity. Academics could say Goodhart’s Law or Campbell’s Law comes into play when the utility of an assessment criterion is undermined as it becomes an object of policy. So, if you really want to know how that child is progressing then you should opt for unannounced and random testing. The fact that summative assessment relies on exactly the opposite suggests that it is aiming for something else: perhaps a measure of how quickly, accurately and uncritically you can follow an arbitrary set of instructions.
I am often told there is no way out of the demands of the assessment regime, especially in this country. Qualifications on paper are indispensable for measuring the candidate for further education or employment. Providing portfolios of work, accounts of major projects carried out while at school or interviewing to determine aptitude with unprepared problems may all be better indicators but, apparently, it would be too ‘impractical’ to resort to these. We may at least hope for our students to feel no pressure to take these examinations until they have for themselves deemed them functional. Far more satisfactory from their point of view would be to defend a thesis on why they are fit to leave school and lead a fulfilling future. The thesis would not be graded against others in some meaningless hierarchy. It would be nice to think whole people are incommensurable and while we still need to assess, instead of comparing oneself with others, an intrinsic self-esteem would make a person far more robust.