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Sunday 17 December 2017

Rethinking end-of-term exams

TTUTA writes a weekly column for the Newsday called TTUTA on Tuesday.

As the term draws to a close, the nation’s schools are abuzz with the intense activities associated with examinations. Most parents are also anxious to know that their children are able to be successful at these examinations and will lend necessary support.

Unfortunately, there are still too many parents who are indifferent to the concept and this indifference is reflected in the attitude of their children toward their general schooling. It’s a stressful time for both students and teachers, especially at the end of such a long term.

At the level of the school, these examinations serve many purposes. Teachers use them to determine if learning/curriculum objectives are being achieved and the results also form part of the process of accountability to parents.

Unfortunately, in too many instances the results of the examinations do not inform subsequent practice. This continues to be a sad indictment on a system that is driven by an overloaded curriculum. In such a scenario, the focus of teaching is on covering content rather than ensuring that learning is taking place on the part of all students.

Our system of examinations is used as a tool to ensure the perpetuation of a social system of stratification, end-of-term examinations being the practice sessions for the prominent regional examinations.

The constraints imposed by these practices often result in teachers inadvertently focusing more on covering content within a certain timeframe, with the contingent fallout of some students being left behind. We are not suggesting here that assessments are not necessary; our concerns arise out of the ways in which they are administered and used. Assessments are standard elements of teaching and when linked to learning objectives provide the teacher and the school with data or meaningful and targeted educational planning aimed at improving student outcomes. Unfortunately, too often assessments morph quite easily into evaluation, causing the education purpose to become skewed.

This is an inevitable outcome of a system that is driven by high-stakes examinations, where education is equated to the passing of examinations and certification becomes the overall purpose of schooling.

In the ensuing scenario, the children are forgotten and undue pressure is placed on some to excel in these examination rituals. Thus, at this time of year there are thousands of students who are being placed under severe stress to perform well in their “tests” for it is part of the overall objective of “nailing” the exam.

What further compounds our situation is the fact that most of our examinations are pitched at the lowest levels of learning, namely remember, understand and apply. These levels of learning lend themselves readily to traditional “tests” and are thus the most common approaches employed in most schools.

It is worth reminding us all that in some education systems that are considered successful, high-stakes examinations/tests are de-emphasised and rather viewed as detrimental to the overall purpose of education. Instead, the focus is on formative assessment; that is, using assessment to inform curriculum decision-making and programme improvement to facilitate student learning.

Testing students at the higher levels of learning, namely analyse, evaluate and create, incurs a greater amount of effort on the part of school officials, takes a longer period of time but in the long term is a more authentic assessment approach.

This is where we ought to be focusing as a school system if we are truly desirous of ensuring that education is about human capital development. Consistent poor performances in end-of-term examinations lead to children having poor self-esteem and their approach and attitude to school can be negatively affected. Not all learning needs to be assessed by means of written summative examinations. There are other assessment tools that can yield more authentic and relevant data about what children know and are able to do. This will require a desire to do things differently, as well as a different perspective on the role of assessment in the teaching and learning process. If we want to see change and improvement in the system, we need to do some things differently.

While no one will argue for the complete elimination of end-of-term tests, they must be placed in the overall context of educational purpose and objective. Schools are places where children are given the opportunity to realise their maximum human potential and traditional tests very often inhibit this objective from being achieved.

It is therefore important that end-of-term examinations are placed and conducted in their rightful context — something for us to think about.


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