What is Wrong With Our Exams?

Rama Mathew

As more and more incidents of parents and students complaining about the exam system come to light, the worst being suicides by students (there are, of course, innumerable examples of various forms of intimidation, low esteem, lack of interest in studies, to name a few), one wonders why we have not managed to address the issue. What is wrong with our exams, really?

School-end exams are tests that have high stakes and are used in decisions related to promotion, certification, admission to college, and school accreditation. They also help to set standards and to hold students, teachers and administrators accountable, although relying on one snapshot that captures one event in one context is inappropriate and inconsistent with what we know about learning and assessment. Moreover, the negative wash back effect of such tests filters down to lower classes, even to nursery and kindergarten levels, where teaching and testing mirror what exams at higher levels demand. This is clearly dangerous as we entrench ourselves in a complex situation that involves different people: teachers, schools, administrators, coaching classes, parents, exam boards, indeed everyone concerned with education. Where should change start?

Tests tell us about what we perceive as valuable learning. A careful analysis of the content of tests at any level reveals that by and large, we expect memorised answers to closed questions; even when questions appear like open-ended, long answer types, the scoring key used to assess student answers gives credit to ready-made and rehearsed answers. It is rarely that students are required to demonstrate higher order abilities like analysis, interpretation, evaluation, critical thinking and the like. Moreover, since we teach to tests, what happens in class reflects what exams and tests demand. The study done by Educational Initiatives and Wipro, reported in India Today (November 27, 2006), showed that learning is rote based and does not focus on real knowledge. Don’t we want our children to get real knowledge?

In another study I did in some schools in Hyderabad and Delhi, tests that made students ‘think’, clearly won their favour. They wondered why all exams weren’t fun, enjoyable and a learning tool, such as those that they experienced. Students want tests that do not force them to behave like robots, but make them apply what they have learnt in new, real life situations.

The message is clear: all of us – parents, teachers, students and more importantly, exam boards – need to start making the change. The time is now.

The writer is Professor, Department of Education, Delhi University, New Delhi.

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