Time for exams to measure whole education system, not students only

It is examinations season for primary and secondary schools. During this time, students will be tested on how much knowledge they have supposedly acquired in the last several years.

Those who pass the test will be certified as ready for the next level. The others that don’t will have their path to a decent future blocked.

In Rwanda, the season runs from November when exams are written to January when results are released. Needless to say, the three months are a period of anxiety for everyone concerned.

There is one simple reason for this: fear of failure. It is less the fear of failure in the examinations= itself, but more the prospect of ending one’s chances of a good future.

The fear is so deep and enduring that some still dream about it many decades after their last exam, even when they did not fail and have actually made it to the highest level in academia and public service.

So what causes this anxiety and fear? It probably has to do with the expectations placed on educational achievement and the tools used to measure it.

For the students, exams are more than a test of knowledge. They are a kind of rite of passage as daunting and painful as some of the more physical ones young people endure when transitioning to adulthood in some societies.

They offer the right to move from one level of education to the next, and ultimately to success in life. In many cases the primary objective is success. The acquisition of knowledge is only secondary.

To get to the hoped for success, parents invest heavily in the education of their children. Those with the means send them to the best schools and even pay for private tuition.

Others less able have to do with what the state provides. All of them, however, expect a return on their investment. And so they drive their children to perform to levels sometimes beyond their intellectual capacity

Schools, too, have a vested interest in the performance of their students and push them to limits well above their ability. They want the public to see exams results as proof of their effectiveness, and in the marketplace that education has become, this is an increasingly useful advertisement.

The pressure to produce good results is therefore very high. Hence the anxiety and the reason why some will go to any length to influence the outcome, including by illegal or unfair means. Even governments have to spend a lot of money to guard against this and protect the integrity of examinations.

Come January and the results will be out. The waiting will be over. Some will rejoice; their fears will have been unfounded after all. Others will weep; their worst fears will have come to pass.

A few might shrug their shoulders in indifference or resignation. Whatever the outcome, their fate will have been determined for life.

Because the future of most people depends so much on exams outcome, the level of anxiety and fear they cause, and even the desperate measures taken to beat the system are understandable.

But should it be like this? Is it not possible to make examinations less frightening and a fairer measure of educational attainment than it is now?  Of course, it is, but that would mean changing how and what is measured. To do that, a few questions should be answered first.

First, what do we want to assess: is it intellectual ability or memory capacity?  We have been assured that this year’s exams will be different as they will test competence, not memory. We wait to see whether this is the case or the old way by another name.

Second, do we want to assess students only or should we evaluate the whole system? At the moment, the burden to prove the effectiveness of educational delivery is borne by the students alone, leaving all others involved in the education system free from any responsibility. Is it perhaps not time to share the burden across the system?

Third, is it not possible to spread evaluation across the learning cycle and not have to wait for a grand test at the end?

Finally, should exams results be the sole yardstick for assessing one’s ability to contribute meaningfully to society? In this respect exams are closely linked to certificates and employment prospects.

Perhaps employers should find other, more reliable, ways of assessing a candidate’s suitability for employment.

Answers to all these questions point to the need to change the method of evaluation in our schools. This should include evaluating teachers, schools and the whole delivery system.

Inevitably this requires a change in mindset of almost everyone: students, parents, teachers and educational administrators. That will probably take a while.

For now, we wish all those writing their exams at this time success.

Twitter: @jrwagatare

The views expressed in this article are of the author.