Do exams really make children happy?

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?

3 Comments on “Do exams really make children happy?”

  1. trevor fisher says:

    dear john

    interested in knowing more about the US sats tests and their attempts to be content free. ALso the link to the telegraph report, which indicates again the superiority of their education correspondent to their editorial department.

    There is no point alas in trying to engage with Gove’s dogmas, he is a one dimensional fundamentalist. The key issue is to find ways to stop him damaging exams and curriculum


    • Bill Morehead says:

      The important thing to recognized is that children are people who come from many types of backgrounds. It should be considered important that the have and continue to gain knowledge from their life experiences.

      Some of those experiences are from situations where people have recognized what they currently know but in the majority of cases their experiences have been prescriptive.

      Education at all levels should start from what individuals already know and appropriate steps set to take them to where they need to be. Some who start from a well developed starting point may be overtaken some who have never had a fair chance to develop in their past.

      Teachers at all levels should be enabled to to set courses that receive approval from subject committees and carry out assessments where samples from of a range of results are moderated by experienced teacher groups. This gives the assessment value across the country that are respected by those who were assessed, their parents, employers and others.

      After setting an award winning situation in at the air electrical school in the Fleet Air Arm serviceability was significantly increased and an apprentice said “I have learnt more about electronics in the three weeks in this department than in the three years of apprenticeship.

      Having continued this approach as a department head in a secondary school a pupil who had problems came back two years later and said “I do not know where I would have been if had not been for you”

      At the major reform of the examination system the few who used this mode three approach were written off and the current prescriptive approach put in place.

      I get written off by politicians and refused any opportunities to debate the basis of a successful Career in education culminating in running the National Development project Lifelong Learning in the Workplace which continues as UNIONLEARN. The many delegates who where given the freedom to make this happen followed a similar pattern. They were important.

      When can we make a more positive move?

      Bill Morehead

  2. Margaret Morris says:

    Even the CBI has become concerned that our schools have become “an exams factory” and is worried at the negative effects of this on our children’s education. That such a body is calling for the end of League Tables should encourage all who care about the pressure they put on teachers and children to renew their efforts to abolish them and to call on teachers to create a rounded education for all our children.