Are exams fair?
I am on sabbatical leave and taking off to give a lecture in Chicago while our students hone their skills by translating Barack Obama and Milan Kundera into Latin and Greek. I kid you not. In our day it was Macaulay or Churchill if you were lucky (he was easier). But I guess that the effect of the Latin is to make Obama sound much like Macaulay anyway.
It’s hard to live through a summer term here without a little nagging doubt about what exactly we are putting them through the exam routine FOR. It’s nowhere near as bad as the school examining business which is currently getting itself tied up in knots about accuracy and objectivity.
Their double bind is quite simple. The more kids you examine, the more examiners you need. In the bad old days, when we had only a small number of kids doing A level, then we could afford to have wise and experienced examiners evaluating exam answers about the relative merits of Gladstone and Disraeli – with confidence.
The more kids take the exams, the harder it is to find enough examiners (the pay is lousy), the less experienced and qualified they will be overall (I dont mean individuals), and the more we need to keep a careful eye on what exactly they are getting up to. The totally safe way out is multiple choice. Even a computer can mark that. If not multiple choice, then every question has to come with a set of acceptable answers handed out to each examiner. This lets you put even trainee teachers into bat – all they have to do is match up the candidate’s answer with their checklist.
The only trouble is that it stamps on imagination, independence and eccentricity, or on any poor child who has the nerve to mention a point not on the list. “Not on the list” = “no marks”. In the bad old days we relied on the wise and experienced to distinguish the eccentric and silly from the eccentric and brilliant. It’s an inexact science, sometimes they made mistakes or weren’t so wise and experienced after all, but we trusted them.
We haven’t figured out how to have mass examining without a mechanistic approach to learning which in the end equals dumbing down.
Cambridge students are lucky by comparison.
We all accept that exams don’t test every skill, and I suspect that there is a blokeish element to success in them (whether in women or men). So increasingly we use “alternative methods of assessment” too, dissertations or portfolios of essays. But exams do test some skills we value. I, for one, am not knocking the acquisition of knowledge, useful memory, the ability to deploy learnt knowledge, to answer the question and to make a good argument. And our exams aren't bad at testing those things – as fairly as you could possibly hope.
Every exam script is marked anonymously. In the old days, you used to recognise the handwriting of the students you had taught, however “anonymous” it was. But now you have most likely never seen your students' hand writing, so that problem has gone.
Each script is also marked by two people – first independently, then in consultation. I remember that, when I was a student, we used to worry hugely about the ideological differences between the two examiners. Would the trendy Professor X mark you down for what the philological Professor Y would value? In my experience, both Professor X and Y are looking for students to answer well, under any ideological banner.
When examiners differ it is more often than not because one examiner has “read” or “understood” what the student was saying in different ways. Sometimes, honestly, when you talk to your fellow examiner, you see that you have just missed the student’s point. Or the other examiner sees that he or she has given the kid too much benefit of the doubt. If you still don’t agree, it can all be read by the external examiner. Yes it’s a time-consuming process.
OK, I can see that this tendency for examiners to agree might simply reflect an unspoken, unreflective collusion by a conservative academic establishment about what counts as “good answers”. But I doubt it honestly.
If any students are reading this, let me just say: stop worrying about all those arcane things that could go wrong -- more marks are lost by NOT ANSWERING THE QUESTION, than by any other failing at all.