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  • Claire Vorster

Are Exams Failing our Students?

International Baccalaureate Claire Vorster

Last year, India was rocked by demonstrations after questions from national school examinations were leaked, leading to a high-level investigation. Reflecting on the ruckus, in the Hindustan Times, education specialist Sheshagiri KM argued that, “it’s time that we ask ourselves why we have become so obsessed with this performance-driven culture in education, which is giving rise to so much anxiety.”

His voice joins educators in Singapore and around the world who are questioning how current assessment models prepare our students for the digital age.

“Pre-internet, the ability to retain and apply information verbatim was necessary. Today, this ‘knowledge’ is a click away. If exams primarily assess retained information, how relevant is that skill to today’s students?” wrote Peter T Howe, Principal of UWC Atlantic College in South Wales, UK, in an article for the TES in August.

Or, as author Amit Kalantri wrote in a Wealth of Words: “School exams are memory tests, in the real-world no one is going to stop you from referring to a book to solve a problem.”

For many educators, exams are the path to a grade that may devalue the skills students develop to achieve that grade. Sheshagiri KM believes that these skills are not simply a means to an end. He suggests that: “Exams hardly measure important human qualities needed in this increasingly complex world: persistence, curiosity, courage, leadership, creativity, compassion, empathy, sense of beauty and humour, among others.”

Better and more meaningful exams

As part of the quest to provide a meaningful experience for students as they prepare for adulthood, the significance of exams will remain a hot topic. In spite of debated flaws, eradicating all exams from education may not work in reality, nor be equitable and fair to students.

As Matt Glanville, Head of Assessment Principles and Practice at the IB, says: “For most countries across the world the purpose of the final assessment is selection, either for further educational study (university) or employment. This creates two problems; firstly, any grade must be unique to the student, limiting the role of teamwork and secondly it needs to differentiate between students.”

He adds: “I would encourage everyone to champion better, more meaningful examinations not to get rid of them in their entirety. Assessments do not distinguish between a student’s background, the school they attended or their home life—in that way they are a good equalizer. Whatever we would replace them with is likely to be a less fair measure for selecting the appropriate students for future opportunities.”

Keeping assessments relevant

Director of IB World Schools, Adrian Kearney explains how the IB is working to keep assessments relevant and meet the challenges of the digital age. He refers to the Middle Years Programme eAssessment that, “pushes students to go beyond the rote memorization of content; just 25% of the assessment is based explicitly on knowledge and understanding – the rest focuses on inquiry, communication, and critical thinking skills”.

Educators agree that the ability to think critically, to learn independently, to work together with others, to analyse research, to solve problems and to take personal responsibility for learning are all highly desirable and transferable skills.

Dr Helen Soulé, Executive Director of P21 suggests: “Project Based Learning and other instructional practices that promote student engagement, real-world experiences, the acquisition of 21st century skills, and transform the role of the teacher from lecturer to guide/facilitator have been shown to produce the desired student outcomes.”

Thanks to its international transferability, rigour and breadth of study, the International Baccalaureate (widely referred to as the IB) is gaining traction amongst schools in India, following the worldwide trend.

Paula Wilcock, Chief Assessment Officer for the IB explains: “Our assessment models for the Diploma, Career-related and Middle Years Programmes include a combination of coursework and summative exams, so that students can demonstrate their application of knowledge and where/how they make judgements. And through service learning students have further opportunities to evidence their skills.”

Education for India’s future

The Aga Khan Academy in Hyderabad, based on the IB curriculum, was established with a mission to develop home-grown leaders with a strong sense of ethics and civic responsibility, who will contribute to India’s future.

By intentionally bringing a diverse group of students to study and live together, the Academy aims to help build understanding and respect across diverse sectors of society.

Students are admitted based on merit, and a substantial number of full and partial bursaries are offered, ensuring that socio-economic status does not limit access.

"A new school," His Highness the Aga Khan has said, "looks to a better world, for it exists to help students develop the character, intellect and mental resilience that will enable them to prosper in circumstances that we can only imagine." A great school, the Aga Khan said, "will educate its students not merely to be personally successful but also to use their gifts to build their communities and enhance the common good to levels beyond our dreams."

A modern approach

Amidst this innovation and allowing for the continued pace of social and technological change, the challenge for educators across the globe is to ensure student assessment remains fit for purpose.

As Peter Howe concludes: “When students go into the world, the challenges they face in their lives, careers and relationships aren’t overcome through an essay written in silence.”

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