I'm in Year 11. This year has been exhausting & has shown up the problems with our exam system

We must move beyond exam cramming and competition to support learning and recognise what all young people are capable of

Austen Burnham Year 11 student

If one word had to be used to describe how millions of people feel about this pandemic, the word would be uncertainty! For my fellow Year 11 students, the uncertainty surrounding our safety, education, exams and our future has plagued us since returning in September. Having watched the fiasco of last year’s grades, we watched and waited with unease expecting another national upheaval to leave us in the dark. So we returned to school even more anxious, continuously aiming to achieve the best we could; and let me tell you, that is exhausting!

Since returning in September students have experienced an unprecedented amount of pressure and uncertainty. The pressure stemmed from the relentless effort by schools to collect enough data to support a student’s grades, in anticipation for another national lockdown. Schools persisted in collecting data by cramming content and forcing a multitude of exams on students, which has allowed for no respite to consolidate learning or simply the time to catch up on missed content. Schools and teachers weren’t intentionally inflicting this unbearable amount of pressure and purposefully seeking quantity of results over quality, but because of the constant U-turns from government, schools had no other choice but to be prepared for any scenario.

In a time where uncertainty itself had become an epidemic, schools had to relentlessly hammer knowledge into students, simply to provide them with a passing grade. In this context, skills that traditional exams can’t measure no longer seemed important. A school’s goal was simply to get their students through the year with the ‘right’ amount of evidence.

This has unwittingly stunted the development of dispositions which would help students adapt to a changing world in the future, a world where memory will matter less than cognitive flexibility: the ability to change and overcome challenges. A world where ‘success’ is the ability to recall information at the snap of a finger is a world we no longer live in…the internet can provide a mass of researchable information at our fingertips. We need to know how best to use it purposefully.

We often hear how everyone is unique and no one is alike. However, the examination system treats everyone as if they should be the same, and as if everyone should develop the same abilities and the same narrow set of skills. The only difference acknowledged is where they come in the grand ranking exercise. In order to prepare a cohort for what may come in the future, first we must give them the best chance at succeeding in areas of particular strength.

But for students who become anxious during exam periods, or who find practical work more of a representation of their ability, the rules of the game don’t work. They are simply left behind, and often labelled as unintelligent. Covid has provided the perfect opportunity for us a nation to re-assess and re-evaluate our exams, so that they provide a more comprehensive and holistic view of the student, instead of only a collection of numbers.

At school, there is always a ‘right’ answer and a ‘right way’ of doing things. We learn that mistakes are something to be avoided, something that could impact our future, something we should not do because our examining system does not allow for them. However, without mistakes I doubt our society would be where we are today, mistakes are what drove scientists to look for alternative solutions, what drove innovation. Mistakes provide a foundation for improvement, something we can learn from.

Surely we should strive to encourage the skill of critical thinking and problem solving that comes as a result of making mistakes and having to find alternative solutions. Thomas Edison, perhaps the most famous inventor of all time, is renowned for making mistakes, but instead of giving up he persevered, and what he learned from his mistakes helped to create the world we know today. Students should not be penalised for making mistakes whilst developing core knowledge and understanding with no opportunity for redemption as this only hinders their willingness to take risks, to put themselves out there, to make a change. Our world is not founded on a ‘one chance’ only ideology, so why is our examination system?

This year’s students have been subjected to unstable learning conditions not only due to the disruption of covid but also the lack of structure and breadth to the examining system but by taking this opportunity to adjust how we value students we may spare them from competing in an environment where they only have one shot.

Why not test people when they’re ready, rather than when it’s June? Why not test them in more than speed-writing? Why not prioritise applying the knowledge over the ability to cram it the night before? It’s too late for me, but a big rethink of assessment is seriously overdue.

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