My experience with a school system which has no (or almost no) public exams — in Queensland, Australia — encourages me in the view that Patrick Yarker (Solidarity 257) is right to oppose school exams.
In Queensland you can leave school in year 10, with a statement from the school, based on continuous assessment, of what you’ve learned, or you can continue to year 12.
At the end of year 12 students are graded for admission to universities on the basis of continuous assessment within schools. The one public exam, the Queensland Core Skills test, is used not to grade individuals, but to calibrate school subject cohorts relative to each other.
There are still exams within schools. Although students are not constantly told “you’re on level such-and-such”, as they are in English schools, they will know that they usually score C or A or D or whatever. Exam blight is still there, and there are many other things wrong with the system. But exam blight is reduced.
There is no “teaching to the test”. There is less time spent on revision. There is less time spent drilling students to do things mechanically in the exam when we know they don’t understand the concepts and won’t retain them.
There is no streaming. Failure is much less definitive. If you do badly in year 10 — well, you may do better in year 11. It is not like failing your GCSEs.
Tests or assessments of whether we are qualified for jobs are fair enough.
But exams in schools are a very different matter. They are not done to test suitability for useful work. In fact, scarcely any final university exam qualifies anyone for any job. At best it qualifies them to train for a job.
Exams in schools are devices to structure schooling so that its main “lesson” to most students is that they are failures. Not just that they have failed — we all fail at things; socialism will not abolish disappointment and frustration — but that they are failures.
They are filters to exclude students from going further in education. They are engines against learning.
The education system functions for capitalist employers mainly as a way of testing young people’s ability to jump through hoops. Good A levels and a good university degree will help you towards many jobs, because, regardless of whether the exam is in Aramaic or Zoology, the degree shows you can jump through exam-hoops.
The expansion of university education has, paradoxically, reduced social mobility. Before the late 1960s many young people from well-off families didn’t go to university. Few jobs required degrees. A young person from a poor family could gain skills and promotion at work without hitting the barrier which now reserves most well-paid jobs for graduates irrespective of whether the subject they graduated in has anything to do with the job.
We need assessment in schools? In one teaching contract in Queensland I was allowed to do end-of-year assessment for a class without any sort of exam. It was a year 9 maths bottom set. (Setting is rare in Queensland, but more common in maths than in other subjects, and often done by separating off a “top” set and a “bottom” set, and leaving all the other sets mixed).
I had the class working on a range of activities, each student at her or his own pace, though usually helping each other. I assessed them by reporting how far they’d progressed on the spectrum of activities. It was less chancy and more humane than giving them an exam. It also helped to identify at least three students who were capable of and interested in doing much more serious maths.
Why can’t we do that for all school assessment? Exams should be reserved for checking qualifications for jobs where an unqualified worker will harm others (not just brain surgeons and pilots). And their results should be just “qualified” or “not yet qualified”.