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I have spent many happy hours idly browsing in second-hand bookshops. The joy, for me at least, is never knowing what you are going to find. I’m not sure my family fully appreciate such joy, but my son at least is showing promise. Due to these happy hours browsing, I now have a collection of books on education that cover the last hundred years and more. What will not come as a surprise to any teacher is that the themes remain much the same. A hundred years ago, those involved in education were grappling with ideas about what to teach, and how and when to teach it in much the same way as such ideas are debated and discussed today. 

One of the books that sits on my shelf is called Education for a World Adrift, written by Sir Richard Livingstone and published in 1943. In the book, Livingstone describes exams as both ‘an opiate and a poison’. They are an opiate because they lull us into believing that all is well, when that is not necessarily the case. Good exam results must mean that a school is doing well, but that assumes that the exams are a valid and reliable measure of whatever it is an education system is trying to achieve. And they are poison because they distort the purpose of education by making exams themselves the goal.  

Very few teachers would subscribe to the view that what they do is given meaning by the tests for which they must prepare the pupils they teach. However, it is often incredibly difficult for teachers to resist the insidious pressure of exams and, as Livingstone describes, ‘teach their subject for its interest and for nothing else and burn no incense on the examination altar.’ When a school is judged by its exam results, as all schools undoubtedly are, the temptation to teach to the test is overwhelming. 

What then of the exams themselves? In 2011, Lord Bew led a review on assessment at the end of Key Stage 2, and the resulting reforms included significant changes to the SATs papers in English and Maths, which are completed by children at the end of Year 6. The review recommended that external testing of writing focused on the assessment of those elements of writing ‘where there are clear “right” or “wrong” answers’; specifically, spelling, punctuation and grammar.  

This opens up a whole catalogue of issues. Firstly, punctuation and grammar are not actually governed by immutable laws as anyone who has read James Joyce or Cormac McCarthy or two books by two different authors knows. But more importantly, as the former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen, has repeatedly argued, there is no evidence that teaching grammar helps children become better writers.  

Here then is an exam acting as both an opiate and a poison. The KS2 SATs Writing assessments would have us believe that children who do well are good writers when there is little to suggest there is any correlation between those things, and they poison the classroom environment by forcing teachers to prepare children for a test that focuses on subjunctives, fronted adverbials and subordinating conjunctions.  

Some form of assessment is obviously useful, to both teachers and the pupils they teach. And it is worth noting that Livingstone is critical specifically of external exams, ‘not those set by the school, as tests of progress, which are useful and necessary.’ Livingstone continues, ‘Examinations are harmless when the examinee is indifferent to their result, but as soon as they matter, they begin to distort his attitude to education and conceal its purpose. The more depends on them, the worse their effect.’ Exams are not innately harmful. Formative assessments used to gauge the progress students have made and inform future teaching have obvious value. But what must be clearly understood is the total score from such tests is irrelevant – what matters is student performance in the separate parts of the test in isolation, not the sum of those parts. 

The format of exams has changed little since Livingstone wrote Education for a World Adrift eighty years ago. Whether it be SATs, GCSEs or A-Levels, exams remain about retention and recall. Pupils of all ages are expected to fill their heads with knowledge that they then regurgitate, and perhaps apply, under timed conditions. Twas always thus, you might think, but in the United Kingdom at least that is not actually the case. Prior to the 18th century, university exams at Cambridge and Oxford (no-one else was doing much in the way of testing at this point) were conducted orally and in Latin. It was only when Mathematics became more dominant that there was a shift towards written rather than oral exams. 

I am not advocating that we conduct school examinations orally, but just because written exams in their current form have been dominant for the last two hundred years does not mean that we have to continue in the same way. There are plenty of alternatives to written exams already used by schools and universities around the world, and many of these alternatives require the use of skills that are much more valued by potential employers. Open book exams allow students to take resources with them into the exam, and consequently the questions generally focus on the application of higher order thinking skills, such as analysing or evaluating ideas or bringing ideas together, rather than more straightforward comprehension and application type question. Portfolios require students to gather together evidence of their work over a period of weeks or months, potentially providing them with the opportunity to demonstrate how their skills or their thinking have developed over time. Collaborative testing involves students working together to achieve a common goal.  

The issue with all of these forms of assessment, as well as the various other alternatives to more traditional written exams, is that they make the assessment process more difficult and more time consuming. However, this in itself should not be a reason to disregard such forms of assessment. Surely fewer, more meaningful exams would be preferable to a whole array of exams that are no longer fit for purpose?