Do exams really make children happy?Posted: November 16, 2012
Earlier this week, Michael Gove was again singing the praises of learning facts and doing exams. Doing exams, he tells us, makes children happy. He is of course careful to relate happiness to success in examinations – there is nothing about the impact of failure!
He follows that with an entirely familiar argument for assessment as a way of identifying the next stages in learning. This is of course something that teachers do every day in their classrooms and in no way requires high stakes examinations.
For a moment, he seems to accept the argument that you can do most of what you want to do through in school assessment. This is then followed by a quite breathtakingly specious justification of exams as a means of ensuring fairness and promoting equality.
It would take a small book to adequately deconstruct the nonsense that follows. But one example is perhaps worth pursuing. He tells us that American Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SATs) – the tests used nationally as part of the college entrance process – have been a way of rooting out prejudice and discrimination in the admission process.
They may indeed have made a contribution – if you believe that performance in any academic test is not partly determined by cultural and socio-economic background. Not a view supported by many. It also passes over the fact that positive discrimination and quotas were central to the whole American struggle for equality in education.
But what is particularly extraordinary is that US SATs represent the opposite extreme from what Gove advocates in exams. They are designed to be as content free as possible and so comprise tests in critical reading, maths and writing. – in the words of CollegeBoard, the organisation that sets them they are designed to “measure the skills required for success in the 21st century”.
We might think that these tests represent a pretty narrow view of what is needed. But there are no lists of presidents to be memorised, no periodic tables to learn … and you can even take a calculator into the maths test!
The whole point of the exercise is to try to establish a common benchmark which is independent of the syllabuses followed in different areas or the resources available to schools – and families. We may not be entirely persuaded that SATs will really do what they claim but the intention is clear. Gove tells us that “it is important that we appreciate that exams cannot simply be exercises in displaying skills or techniques divorced from mastery of a body of knowledge.” That’s exactly what the American SATs he praises aim to be.
Michael Gove should pay more attention to the international research that tells us that English children are amongst the most unhappy in the western world. Far from exams providing, in his words, “the pleasurable rush that comes from successful thought”, excessive testing and competition in schools is one of the important factors that is making our children miserable. The research was summarised in the Telegraph of all places:
“The powerful lobby of childcare experts said that many “commercially vulnerable” under-16s were spending too much time sat unsupervised in front of televisions, games consoles and the internet in their bedroom instead of playing outdoors.
Children are also among the most tested in the Western world after being pushed into formal schooling at an increasingly young age and more likely to be exposed to junk food and poor diets than elsewhere, they said.
The question we’re left with is – why is government policy actually making things worse in relation to just about all of these areas?