Are exams a worthy form of assessment!?

Today we were having a discussion about exams and whether to keep an exam week for Grades 9 and 10. As you would expect there were very strong opinions for and against keeping exams from those that were in the discussion. I sat on the side of getting rid of an exam week because I feel that this form of assessment puts an end point on learning. Maybe that’s what is needed at the end of a stage of learning, but is that something that educators should encourage? Should we be encouraging students to think that learning has an endpoint? My observation is that too often exams are handed back with red ink on it and a grade at the top that shows what the student knew at that point in time. Rarely are students given a chance to re-sit to show that they have corrected the errors they produced or show they actually knew something that they weren’t able to communicate the first time. This is probably true of many of our types of assessment but the justification for our keeping testing has raised a number of questions for me:

Question 1: If the reason for continuing with an exam period in order to ‘train’ students for long exams, does a 2hr exam (or a series of them in a week) two years before the actual high stake exams you are training for actually enhance the students’ ability to sit a long exam better or does it just show them what they’ve got to look forward to (or dread) in future? If this does actually help, shouldn’t we be providing more opportunities to sit for 2-3 hours in the lead up to the high stakes external testing (in this case the HSC)?

Question 2: Do skills need to be tested under high pressure for us to gather information on whether our students know how to perform them? That may be the case if the normal performance of the skills is in a high pressure situation. Otherwise, shouldn’t we be giving the students an environment that gives them the best opportunity to show us what they know?

Let’s apply this to a sporting context. If I was teaching a student how to putt a golf ball into the hole. They get to practice it as much as they like before their test, but they’ll only get once chance to show me that they can make the putt. Under pressure they aren’t able to do it, so they get marked wrong. I can give them some marks for their working (or in this case their technique) but as they didn’t get the right result they can’t get full marks. Is that a fair assessment if they were able to get it write the majority of the time in practice? Isn’t this what a traditional test/exam does?

Question 3: If we set a testing regime, are we more likely to teach to the exam? Will this mean we just communicate content in order to give students something to study rather than educating them on how to learn, how to gather information and create something with the information?

Question 4: Is using tests just the easiest way of gathering a mark or grade to put on our reports?

As I’ve been writing, I’ve started to think, does the way I conduct other forms of assessment allow me to do things better? What do I need to change to give the students better information about what they know and what they can improve?

Does anyone have any definitive answers or research that gives answers to these questions? I’m open to suggestion and/or correction if my thinking is wrong.

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