Leading by exam: Why we need examination reform

We must move away from equating the education delivered by a system with its signature piece – the final exam

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Many educational authorities lead by exam. Nationally we have the New South Wales Higher School Certificate (HSC), the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE), the South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE), Western Australian Certificate of Education (WACE) and Queensland Certificate of Education (QCE). Dozens of other national education systems around the world also use exams as an exit ticket, such as the A-Level exams in England, the ICSE in India, and the High School Graduation Exam in Vietnam. Internationally there are the International Baccalaureate (IB), the Cambridge system exams, and the widely used Scholastic Assessment Test (SATs).

In large systems, external exams are used to compare schools and rank students. By ranking schools, they therefore place the students within and between schools in some sort of order. That order is meant to denote the academic performance of all the students within the system against one another. This generally forms the basis of offering university places.

A question for educational authorities, however, is whether leading by exam is in fact the best model in a dynamic world.

Despite what some populist psychologists might say, there is a place for test taking and exams. We know that exams ensure that those taking exams study the content and skills necessary to pass those exams. I do not hear advocates for the removal of exams saying that medical practitioners and lawyers should never take tests. I do not hear people advocating against the need for driving tests. Furthermore, I have yet to hear a cogent argument put forward for the removal of workplace health and safety tests.

That there is a place for exams, however, does not mean systems should lead by exams.

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Exams are necessary but not sufficient

Without doubt there is a place for testing and exams. But a huge problem with leading by exams is fixation. That is, we equate the education delivered by a system with its signature piece.

We conflate credential and curriculum. It seems to me educational systems and authorities need to lead instead by example through flexibility and adaptation.

One such adaptation must be the capacity to understand the limitation of exams in circumstances where it is evident that data can be gathered through other means. During a global pandemic understanding whether it is necessary to have external final exams might be a starting point.

Most educational systems gather data throughout the life of every student and have data that helps determine the relative strength of schools in the context of the other schools within the system. This information is not uncovered as a mystery final reveal.

In the light of this, what is required is a focus on developing and strengthening other capabilities and forms of assessment.

I advocated several years ago for the use of open book testing including in final exams such as the HSC and VCE. I suggested that it would enable students to apply skills that cannot be assessed in closed book testing, and that at different levels of schooling, a proportion of assessments should include open access to the internet. This would assess the capacity for students to use various sources and interrogate data for its authenticity in real time.

This year many schools opted for open book testing for their trial preparation for final exams. Students and educators alike reported that it was an effective way of assessing their students, and moreover it gave them data that they could not have obtained through traditional means.

If we do away with leading by exam – what will we have?

Large systems can have several signature pieces instead of a single external exam as the showpiece. Leading systems could look at how other forms of assessment, more in line with the type of assessment more sought by a diverse range of workplaces, could be developed. This would include the use of viva presentations instead of Turnitin to assess plagiarism.

Leading educational systems could further look at the development of critical and creative thinking, and how such thinking can be role modelled when the times demand it. Critical and creative thinking could be a feature not an adjunct to the curriculum.

Leading by exams has been a successful historical feature of educational systems. Whilst there is a place for exams in all educational systems, perhaps it’s time to focus on leading by flexibility, not fixation.

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Mohan Dhall
Mohan Dhall
Academic leader, M2K Education and Advisory and CEO of Australian Tutoring Association and Global Tutoring Association.

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