The case for abolishing exams

The cancellation of exams during the lockdown has raised a familiar debate: are we over-testing our kids? Simon Jenkins of the Guardian takes the progressive line that doing without exams for one year might be beneficial.

In the mind of Jenkins, quantifying what students have learned has perverted school and university education, without even giving employers a decent flow of graduates ready to work or a reliable indicator of how well a recruit will perform in the job. “Education lies in the totality of the course, not something that can be written down on paper,” he writes.

Our education system doubtless strains at its different tasks. Universities are research facilities for furthering human knowledge and development. However, they are also expected to train undergraduates for the workplace, while providing a ‘well rounded’ education. Schools must fulfil these latter two tasks at a lower level.

Jenkins is correct that exams struggle to measure education in the ‘well rounded’ sense, although this is partly because it is ill-defined. You can recognise people who are well travelled, well read, emotionally intelligent and whatever else by speaking to them, but not even a panel of exams could provide a satisfying single number or a weighting people could agree on.

I suspect many progressives would be happy with university as a time of pleasant exploration in which students could find themselves amid the intellectual stimulation of a good subject and various worthy societies (plus the drinking, drug taking and shagging). Yet the appetite for funding such a vacation from adult life – or even participating in it – might prove a tad lacking without the lure of job offers at the end.

Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education argues that most students are in it for the qualification and subsequent job prospects, citing copious survey data. More anecdotally, even though many university lectures are posted online few people bother to watch them: the value is in the paper rather than the wisdom bestowed.

This is known as the signalling model. Non-vocational education is not useful in terms of the skills and knowledge it gives you, but in the signal it sends to employers that you would be worth hiring and training. And if you think many of the abilities employers find interesting are present before students embark on their degrees then university looks like “a waste of time and money” to take Caplan’s subtitle. An end-of-school test could suffice to tease out the talent of young adults.

I doubt any government has the guts to cut back the education system given the edifice of research institutions, jobs, and prestige that sits upon it. (Some pundits have noted that propping up a university is a roundabout stimulus programme for many cities that would otherwise be struggling economically.)

If employers can be convinced that degrees are not particularly indicative of a potential staffer’s potential or that qualified apprentices with relevant skills are better prospects demand for university education might decline. Some companies have experienced positive results with non-graduate streams of recruits, but there seems little sign the practice is becoming widespread.

As such the likelihood is that we’ll keep sending kids to university and asking them to pass exams so that we can claim they’ve been taught something economically relevant. In some ways both the exam proponents and their opponents are propping each other up.

(On a final note, I suspect teachers could offer pretty robust predictions of students’ end of year exam grades with the right metrics. Different students have different trajectories over a year, but the surprise victories or failures are doubtless outweighed by students who do roughly as well as expected. Perhaps on those grounds you could abolish exams and still end up with an assessment.)

Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact

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