Why bother with exams?

It is traditional in August for journalists to muse on their own exam results days, usually dispensing sarcastic advice. How useful the trade’s experience is to the public is dubious given it is staffed by those who went to private school, university and frequently Oxbridge, but what is life without the right to snark?

The decision not to sit exams in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic has made hacks’ recollections of their own experience even less relevant than usual. More than that, the attempts to create synthetic grades through teacher estimates and central moderation has raised doubts about the whole examination process, as evinced by the current scandal in Scotland.

Schooling was arguably a theatre in the culture war in Britain before the term even started being used here, most notably shown by Michael Gove’s tenure as education secretary. This is to be expected: what we teach kids is a deeply political issue, even before you get to the unpleasant matter of working out who is and isn’t talented.

Added to that is the supreme self-regard of teachers. Educators work hard and are motivated with the best of intentions, but seem blithely unaware most of what they teach is neither useful nor interesting, and most of it will be forgotten before pupils leave the building that day.

Education has proved a dicey issue for the Scottish National Party (SNP), with the party being criticised over teacher strikes, the attainment gap, and finally the standardisation process for calculating grades this year. This has seen many pupils get lower grades than they expected.

Stories are doing the rounds of students being cut off from desired career paths because of the changes, with some drawing attention to disparate grade adjustments in rich and poor areas. Scottish Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray told the BBC that the Scottish Qualifications Authority “have done this on the basis of each school’s past performance, marking the school not the pupil, and baking in the attainment gap.”

What has also emerged is a rather Govean contest between central authority and local control. Pupil Lauren Steele wrote in an open letter, “These teachers have known me since I walked into that school at 11 years old and have monitored my work and progress all year long so in my opinion are the most qualified to predict results – not strangers in an office who know my name and postcode.”

I wonder, however, if a postcode and a few previous tests results yield more accurate forecasts that the judgments of individual teachers. This at least is my inference from reading Superforecasting by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, which argues that rules of thumb are better starting points for prediction than detailed assessments, which is why amateurs can make better forecasts on complex events than experts.

If teachers are good at predicting their students’ grade it also raises the question of why we bother with tests. One answer, of course, is the mantra that what gets measured gets managed. As a public service education needs to be monitored somehow.

There is also the fact that exams are as much of a test of a teacher as they are of the pupils. External testing, for all its drawbacks, is at least a third-party assessment of whether their kids are retaining that useless, boring information (or advanced cognitive skills, if you prefer).

Exams also offer signals to employers that higher academic institutions as to how suited you are for their positions. Even if we abolished testing at school, it seems likely that such organisations would institute their own assessments – this time outside the purview of democratically-controlled public bodies.

Jimmy Nicholls
Jimmy Nicholls
Writes somewhat about British politics and associated matters. Contact jimmy@rightdishonourable.com

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