It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m writing a column on exams, given that I’ve only got a few more GCSE papers to sit before awaiting the results in August, but some outcomes are already guaranteed.
I’ll let you into a little secret – I have psychic powers. I can predict, with astonishing accuracy, what will happen on the 25th August. The GCSE and GNVQ results for the country will be released, billed as the best ever. In every single newspaper, they’ll be a column deriding the exams for being dumbed-down into oblivion. And then some 16 year old will be asked to comment, pointing out how much stress they were put under. We’ll see a comparison of boys vs girls results, and how amazingly popular languages have suddenly become. OK, that last bit was a lie but I hope you see the point – the secret of my physic powers comes from seeing exactly the same content rehashed each and every single year.
So instead, I’d like to sidestep to the format of the exams themselves. For a start, it seems utterly absurd that in 2005 we still do exams in pen and ink, only to have some exam boards convert them so they can do amazing ‘online marking’. It highlights that our exams are being delivered in an obsolete format, the equivalent of Betamax tapes or a quill.
This matters because outside of the education system, you will never find yourself having to pen a piece of extended writing by hand. However, you will need word-processing skills which are considered vital by employers. Why can’t we equip students with the expertise they actually need – typing?
It’s more than simply being easier on the hand, and a relief for those of us with less than wonderful handwriting. Word processing gives you the power to edit and structure your writing, which is a more natural way of thinking than having to plan out everything you want to say beforehand. I’d like to see every examination centre have a fleet of PCs, locked down for security reasons, with only a word processing program available. And yes, unless the exam is specifically linked to spelling, a spell-checker as well. Students who are not yet comfortable with typing could have the option to use the more traditional pen and paper while we gradually change over.
The system needs more than a change of format though. I’m probably in a minority for being in favour of a high level of coursework, as well as a final examination. Coursework is not dependent on someone’s mood for an hour or two in a stressful exam hall, and can be improved over time, just like things can be in ‘real life’. If you have to write something at work and your boss doesn’t think it’s good enough, you don’t get a bad grade, but you better fix it pronto. It’s the same with coursework, which inevitably means people have the chance to get higher grades if they work hard enough.
Coursework shouldn’t be the only way of measuring – we all know it’s much more open to abuse than an exam – and there is something to be said for learning to cope under pressure in a time-limited environment. Flexible courses can and should be the answer, if we’re serious about creating a personal curriculum that seeks to empower everyone, whatever their learning style.
I was disappointed when the government kicked exam reform into the long grass, rejecting the main thrust of the Tomlinson report. We currently have a bit of messy system that doesn’t have everyone’s full confidence, with no enough scope for vocational options, and will inevitably attract the same criticism year after year. Don’t be in doubt – if the exam results rise, the tests must be getting easier. If they fall, well, we’re obviously a nation of happy-slapping youths who can’t count. Right?
A message to the journalists just flexing their word-processors for the easy picking GCSE stories – practice what you preach and stop plagiarising yourselves. We know what the arguments are with the current set-up, and how meaningless the results tables are anyway unless you count ‘Value Added’ scores. But an article on what the future of exams should be, that’ll get full marks from me.
Incidentally – a big thanks to everyone who commented on last week’s new-look DomSez. For the record, I agree with Kathleen, while Len Newman demonstrated exactly why the pricing structure needs careful consideration. Even I think that £84.68 is too much!
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