June 21, 2022

Why Exams Aren't Fair

For 10 of the last 12 years, I have been an exam marker for GCSE & A-Level papers across all the major boards, with the obvious break of the pandemic. It never fails to amaze me that we still use this as the only grade-maker for our young people (even though it pays me during the summer term).

The problem is that exams don't fit all learners; they create a 'teach to the test' approach and are how schools (and teachers) are subsequently judged so will force some teachers to sacrifice 'authentic learning opportunities' for 'will this be on the exam, sir' methodology.

Here are a few home truths we probably need to explore as an education system.

A two or three hour memory test is not evidence of learning.

I am lucky because I did pretty well in my terminal exams (deliberate use of that word). But I know that many people don't, and the results are skewed in favour of those from fee-paying schools.

We have all seen the Jeremy Clarkson tweets each year when it's A-Level results season telling us why the results don't matter.

Learning can be shown in so many different ways than just the written form.

I agree with Joanne Baird: To be fair, we can do better than exams.

It's a flawed technical process.

The process is crazy.

Exams are typed by a Principal Examiner >>> They are printed and sent securely to schools >>> The students handwrite them in timed conditions (despite not using pens in their non-school time) >>> The scripts are collated & posted back to exam centres >>> Scripts are scanned and sent to examiners >>> Exams are marked electronically and grades collated/checked/analysed using a digital system

How are we not seeing the flaws in this? Cost, sustainability, security, speed.

Handwriting to be scanned in and marked electronically doesn't work.

And the evidence is there that handwriting affects exam performance. How crazy that when we have alternative methods of communication, students lose out on gaining credit for their complex understanding of Kantian philosophy & metaphysics because their fine-motor skills are less developed!

And that's without discussing the effect of the pandemic on handwriting ability.

An exam marker doesn't know your learners.

There were flaws in the Teacher Assessed Grades systems of 2020 & 2021, that is for sure (but I personally believe the mutant algorithm was a red herring to maintain the examination system post-COVID).

Even the Chief Regulator of Ofqual, Simon Lebus commented (albeit in the midst of the pandemic and not necessarily about all exams over the years),

“A way to think of it is the exams are a bit like a snapshot, a photograph: you capture an instant, it’s a form of sampling, whereas teacher assessment allows teachers to observe student performance over a much longer period in a rather more complex way, taking into account lots of different pieces of work and arriving at a holistic judgement.”

Teachers know their students better than any external examiner and a holistic, all-year-round, multiple-layered assessment system seems fairer and more attuned to how students learn and how they'll work in the world.