“If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test…”

“If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn’t be here. I guarantee you that.”

Michelle Obama

The rise in child and youth mental health issues is well chronicled. Recent world events have added to anxiety and frustration for the young in our communities. President Macron commiserated with 20 year olds earlier this week, but I think we should also think about all young people.

This week the UK government announced its plans for GCSEs and A level. The Scottish Government also made its plans public. In Scotland one set of exams, the National 5s have been replaced with school assessment tasks and teacher assessed grade information. The situation in England is slightly different with exams being delayed and optionality being introduced in some subjects. I should explain, optionality is not whether or not you take the exam, it is an opportunity to take parts of an exam. Many politicians and some headteachers have welcomed the approach and believe that exams provide the best and fairest means of assessing competence in a subject. I am not so sure. Exams have a place and I do believe that we should check that once learned something can be done. It is important for skills to be embedded and competence regularly checked, I’m not sure you have to sit in a hall in the summertime to do this. As a pupil I liked exams. I had a good short-term memory (now I can’t find my glasses in the morning so I’m very pleased not to be taking exams), I could write quickly, and I enjoyed argument. They worked for me, but quite frankly my competence in exams bears little relation to my ability to teach. The coursework that existed in previous incarnations of the exam system is not the answer. Such exercises turned into another form of academic high stakes poker. More stress, more anxiety. Some cope, others do not. Of course, much of the pressure placed on young people to “do well in exams” is that grades provide universities and employers with a handy measure of something (an ability to do well in exams?). It is inescapable that school league tables mean that exams have become an area to be gamed in what is an increasingly marketized area of society – after all a school with great exam results must be a good school. Perhaps mental health statistics should be issued alongside the other league tables, measuring on one facet of school performance is a lopsided way to judge value.

Exams, tests and quizzes all have their place. Classwork is valuable but rarely formally acknowledged. We should be looking to measure progress as much as an ability to perform at an endpoint. Sometimes we have to work alone and under pressure. Collaborative working is equally as valuable. Failing constructively is perhaps the best way to prepare our pupils for the future. I’m just not so sure that trusting in the exam and the exam alone is a sensible way to understand the competencies, skills, talents and achievements of our young people.

Before the summer there will be modification to what has been proposed. I rather hope that those who pull the levers of policy change will take this once in a lifetime opportunity to change for the better. In a time of crisis and turmoil how good would it be to produce something of which we can be proud?

Nicholas Hammond