Exams are a plight that affect all students at some point; from the age of eleven we are made to take SATs, then marauded with mock exams from Year 7 to Year 11, until we are actually hit with the real things, GCSE's, and then again for our AS Levels and A Levels the following year. As students, we are lead to accept as an almost necessary evil constant examination. But how much educational merit does a formal exam have? And does it realistically reflect the abilities of the person?
In previous years, GCSE's have taken a more modular approach, wherein a student is graded on a certain topic they had been recently studying, and how well they comprehend the subject matter, as well as different forms of technical ability in the field (dependent on the subject). This modular format boded well for students, the numerous smaller tests being less pressuring than one large ominous test at the end of the year.
However, in recent years, a man by the name of Michael Gove has disagreed, and was unfortunately given some power. Michael Gove saw fit to return the examination system to a Linear format, where students took one large assessment for each subject to assess their ability in the field, as well as their ability to retain information from the past two years, much like the O-Levels Mr. Gove would have had to suffer through in his youth (if he did in fact have a youth). The only way I can find to describe these actions, without resorting to vulgarity, is 'dumb', and I would go as far to say callous, as this is the futures of the Nation's children he is toying with.
Nowadays, students are expected to retain information from two years of teaching, and offload it in a long, arduous Q&A, that is multiple times longer than the best of concentration spans, that is timed within close proximity with all the other long, arduous Q&A's. The system gives advantage to the eidetic and those with better memory, but not to those who are actually intelligent, or good in their subject field. Also, lessons are no longer about learning key tools of life and work; research, varying writing skills, independence, working to a deadline, and instead favours a pot-luck memory game and lessons designed instead to help you pass your GCSE's, not prepare you for the wider world.
The exam situation is neglectful of state of mind as well. Being graded on a single instance is never a true judge of a person's character, and it is a shame we base our entire societal worth on various outcomes of single instances. Equally, exams are incredibly artificial situations that, even if someone might me brilliantly adept at a subject, they cannot perform in the conditions of an exam. Also, external factors, such as loss, grief, medical complications, mental health, could all play a part in an unrealistic grade. Teenage years are generally emotional times, and pressurised situations tend to bring out the worst in that sense.
You could argue that if everyone is graded in the same way, with the same rules, like in tests, then it is a fair representation, since everyone is measured by the same rule, as it were, and they are judged on the outcome of being able to do a specific set of things. This is tantamount to measuring everything with a broken stick, on the basis that everything is then measured by that broken stick.
There is also the argument that many careers involve an almost constant level of pressure and stress (shout out to all you teachers), and that working up to and doing exams instills the same kind of pressure exerted on many workers. However, this is a fallacy, for several reasons. Firstly, many career paths have a constant ebb of stress, not a building climax and then a sudden release as soon as whatever it is you are doing is over (ooh err missus). Secondly, there is a whole plethora of jobs that involve little or no stress of the kind that come from examination. As a system for sorting those who can cope under stress from those that can't, it is ultimately flawed.
This brings me back to the questions. The questions I set out to ponder through. How much educational merit does a formal exam have? Little or none is the answer. True, there is learning done in lieu of exams, but when it comes to crunch time, those who win at exams are those who can retain and regurgitate the mark scheme. Does it realistically reflect the abilities of the person? No, exams manage to unreflective of a person's abilities in many ways in a very concise way. They are overly stressful, unforgiving to the great many that can't retain small facts from several years ago and are irreverent to external factors a student is subject to.
So if linear exams are not worth having, then how do we grade people in a more comprehensive way? The modular method, involving coursework, seems fairly apt, and I would even go as far as to say that a system modelled more on the Extended Project idea seems viable, as that provokes independence, interest, research, writing, reading, perhaps numeracy, understanding of the wider world, a strong work ethic, and valuable work when the job is done.
DISCLAIMER: This Hampstead Trash article has been written to inform readers, portraying a factual argument over a specific subject or to report objectively on an event that has occurred.