Tuesday 26 May 2020

If we can do without GCSEs and university exams now, why go back?

Abandon this addiction to assessment. For one year at least, let the class of 2020 be assumed to have passed with honour

The exam season is upon us, or rather is not upon us. Its pens and papers, its clocks, marks, adjustments and grades are as dust. There are some blessings to Covid-19, and one may yet be to liberate education from the dictatorship of “the test”.

The government has already abandoned this year’s GCSEs and A-levels, replacing them with a bureaucratic miasma of calculated and standardised grades in a frantic attempt to keep its beloved metrics alive. For a year, Britain’s children are excused the medieval ritual of sitting in a great hall like acolytes at an altar, trying to remember answers to questions they have just “revised” and will soon forget again. Exam environments are an unreal world, before QWERTY, computers, mobiles and the internet were invented, yet one on which they were told their future depended. It is still guarded by that most conservative of professions, teaching the young.

A devastating assault on this parody of modern education comes from the information technology radical, Conrad Wolfram. Called The Math(s) Fix, it portrays maths as a subject which, perhaps like others, is trapped in the pre-computer age. This is largely because scribbling numbers on paper is the easiest way the authorities can measure, compare and regulate children, pandering to “an unhealthy fixation for assessment, an addictive fix for policy-makers to push”. Maths is the apotheosis of the exam, with its pretence of exactitude. To me, Wolfram portrays maths exams as like taking a driving test with a horse and cart. It needs to take over where the computer leaves off, in a world of calculated uncertainty, risk and, dare we say it, common sense.
‘Who needs a lecture hall when you can sit in Starbucks with a book and a laptop?’ Photograph: Vadym Drobot/Alamy Stock Photo

If overnight we can do without GCSE exams – surely never to return – what about A-levels? They have become the national entry ticket to a job or university, freeing employers and admissions officers from having to assess and treat young people as individuals. There are signs that policymakers are waking up to this. The Whitehall 2020 guidance on awarding qualifications calls on universities to “take a holistic approach” on how to admit students, whatever that means.

At least the A-level exam is a rite of passage, but why universities need to hold exams escapes me. Their students are paying them for a service. If they do not like it, or it does not like them, they can leave. Education lies in the totality of the course, not something that can be written down on paper. Exams are a make-work scheme for dons merely to see “who is top”.

Here, push has really come to shove. Oxford has abolished its first-year exams for this year, baldly stating: “Students will be assumed to have passed.” Some universities are refashioning their climactic exam as an “open-book” test, an online, home-bound experience with a clock ticking. Students may dispense with pen and paper, but stern “honour” warnings are issued against plagiarism – or as the satirist Tom Lehrer said, “call it research”. This must be a huge advantage to those with quiet, well-equipped studies and nifty copy-and-paste skills.

To the obvious solution – Oxford assuming everyone who finishes a course has “passed” – the protest is, what about class of degree as ticket to ride? This bluff, too, has been called. In 2017 the accountancy giant, Grant Thornton, made a dramatic discovery. It had been screening its annual 10,000 applicants for graduates with firsts and 2:1s. For some reason – perhaps a CEO with a 2:2 – it dropped this barrier in favour of intensive interviews. It subsequently found more recruits with “poorer” degrees became high fliers than those with higher ones. Degree class was actually a negative indicator of future achievement. A subsequent Bridge Group survey found class of degree was not even cited for City jobs, as against “behaviour at interview”. There are no degrees in that.

Universities now face a horrendous challenge. They are about to lose tens of thousands of lucrative overseas students. Their finances are in ruin. According to the Office for National Statistics, a third of all graduates are doing jobs for which no degree is needed, and that is likely to worsen. Meanwhile Google, Wikipedia and online data have transformed the world of information, learning and research. Yet universities are stuck with three and four-year courses, long holidays and a fixation with exams.

So why not an experiment? Edinburgh, Manchester, Cambridge and others have already put their lectures online, Cambridge for an entire year. It is hard to see why they should ever revert. Who needs a lecture hall when you can sit in Starbucks with a book and a laptop? A live university is about two-way interaction. When it comes to exams, for one year at least, let “the class of 2020” be assumed to have passed “with honour”. Then, say five years on, let us investigate if freedom from exams had really harmed them, or rather allowed them that essence of learning, more contact between teacher and taught. Something tells me these would be the gilded ones of their generation.

(Source: The Guardian)

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