Tuesday 28 January 2020

Are exams producing quality students?

This article first appeared in Malta Today

As the scholastic year drew to a close on Friday, the pros and cons of exams for primary students was once again the topic of much heated debate.

While I can understand that some parents are alarmed at the prospect of no more benchmarking exams at Year Six, I have never really been able to grasp the point of putting youngsters who are nine to ten years old, through this ordeal. And it IS an ordeal, just ask the mothers and fathers who end up in puddles of sweat and anxiety by the time the gruelling exam period is over and the summer holidays can finally start.

Here, it should be obvious that I am not talking about O and A levels because those are necessary for those who wish to pursue further studies, or to qualify for a specific job, and by that time, students would be mature enough to sit for them. The benchmarking exams for children at the end of their primary school years, however, were created ostensibly to test what point the chid had reached before moving on to secondary school. But first, a little background.

According to a news story published by by TVM in 2015: “Four years since the introduction of the benchmarking system instead of Junior Lyceum exams, education officers are saying that progress was registered in students’ competency in main subjects, such as English, Mathematics and Maltese….Before that, students in their sixth primary year did exams in writing in Maltese, English, Mathematics, Religion and Social Studies. Results achieved in these exams were the only weight that determined which schools the students concerned could resume their secondary education. In 2011, the benchmarking system was introduced to give more importance to continuous assessments and skills of students…. the change in the system did away with the method that classified and determined the destiny of students from such an early age. The benchmarking system is being used in all state schools and although it is not obligatory, many Church, private and independent schools are also implementing it.”

Our education system has been tinkered and experimented with for so long that I can understand why some parents are up in arms. I remember the objections when streaming was removed, and when the Junior Lyceum exams were ditched, now followed by this decision to remove benchmark exams in favour of a more informal testing approach and continuous assessment. The negative reaction of some people can be summed up by one of the comments I read: “why not just give children a degree without needing to go to University?”

This type of reasoning, however is really missing the point and makes me wonder why some feel that an exam-oriented culture is preferable. I do not agree with the reasoning that forcing children to sit exams at a young age makes them “get used to the stress” which they will have to face later on if they continue with their studies. I am of the belief that foisting exams at too tender an age is comparable to when parents expect all children to walk and talk and develop their motor skills and cognitive abilities at the same time as everyone else, and literally freaking out if little Johnny is taking just a bit longer to utter his first words then his cousin who is the same age. One also has to bear in mind that in a classroom you could have children whose birthdays are six months or even nine months apart, which studies have shown can make a vast difference in the pace at which they learn.

The idea of children sitting for exams may have started out as a commendable idea on paper, but eventually turned into a monster when it fuelled and encouraged a senseless rat race as some parents poured thousands of Euro into private lessons, past papers and tutors in order to ensure their child came at the top of his or her class. It turned into an even greater frenzy with each successive year as those who are competitive in nature transferred their thirst for winning onto their offspring. Ironically, parents who did not do so well at school themselves are often especially prone to pushing their children relentlessly to do what they (perhaps) failed to do.
The child’s achievements become theirs as they deliberately steer the conversation towards this topic during days spent on the beach or at family gatherings. And let us not forget the obligatory Facebook post triumphantly announcing the child’s results to their friends, and the world. It’s wonderful to be proud of your kids, but not when parents turn it round, appropriate the good results and make it about themselves.

But let us take the concept of exams per se and ask: are they really producing students who can think for themselves, ask questions, debate and argue logically? Are we encouraging children to be critical thinkers or has the exam culture simply instilled in them the ability to simply parrot what the teacher taught them? And why would anyone think that introducing a child to the stress which the high expectations of an exam bring with it will make the child love school? Above all, I really doubt whether the attainment of literacy has been improved due to all these exams, especially since the threshold for pass marks continues to be lowered. In fact if I had to state the single most detrimental element in our education system it is the idea which was introduced that almost everyone can slide through and pass, because once you lower the bar, the individual will not strive to achieve but simply do the least expected of them. It is simply human nature. Provide remedial classes for those who are slower by all means, or put the high flyers in an advanced class, but do not bring everyone down to the lowest common denominator just so that those who are not as bright won’t feel bad. That might look good for the statistics but we are simply fooling ourselves. Which reminds me of another wrong move which was made quite a few years ago under a PN administration when the practice of a student who is struggling being forced to repeat a year was removed. This was a foolhardy decision which benefited no-one, least of all the child himself who keeps being promoted, struggling more each year and ending up even more frustrated and unhappy.

If the standard of online comments is anything to go by, the ability to write correctly in our mother tongue keeps deteriorating sharply with each generation. Yet I always notice that those over a certain age have a good grasp of written Maltese – even if they might not use it as their first language. Teachers who do piles of corrections often lament the abysmal quality of written English, not only when it comes to spelling but also the ability to coherently express one’s thoughts. So where have we gone wrong? I don’t think exams have anything to do with it. What we need is to encourage more reading of actual books rather than just scrolling through the FB newsfeed, and to create an atmosphere of inquisitive learning, where children take pleasure in figuring things out for themselves, looking up research and opening their minds to knowledge.

Frankly, even at post-secondary and tertiary level there needs to be more emphasis on learning rather than merely passing exams because the serious gaps in general knowledge are often revealed when these graduates walk out into the world where they are ill-equipped to deal with the realities of the workplace. It is little wonder that so many employers constantly say that the quality of Maltese job seekers is dismal and that they cannot find the right candidates.

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