Exam blues

Can tests really evaluate an individual?

By Santana Fell
  • Published 8.01.19, 1:51 AM
  • Updated 8.01.19, 1:51 AM
  • 3 mins read
The education system lays emphasis on standardised testing. Telegraph file picture

School and college life are synonymous with examinations. And, for most of us, there are usually no sweet memories associated with exams. In recent years, the emphasis on doing exceptionally well in exams has increased, leading to students having extraordinary levels of stress associated with taking exams. Sometimes parents add to this stress, albeit with the best of intentions.

In fact, a study by the UK-based Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA) found that the most-associated feeling with sitting exams was “butterflies in the stomach”. Of the people polled, 62 per cent had this reaction. There were more extreme reactions to exam situations too. These included headaches, insomnia and vomiting. Just three out of 10 people associated exams with “a sense of pride”, according to the study based on responses from 2,000 adults.

Exams, therefore, are a far-from-pleasant experience — but necessary to the learning process. But can performance in an exam really test our ability?

“In my experience, exams only test a limited range of a student’s abilities,” says Sister Teresa McGlinchey, former principal of the Loreto Convents at Entally in Calcutta, Darjeeling and Lucknow. “They test recall, expression, comprehension, reasoning and analysis and some amount of creativity. But through my experience I can say that students have many gifts that the academic system does not test. Many of my former students have become good administrators, good organisers, talented sports and academic teachers, yet their previous academic record would not have given any indication of this,” she points out.

Modern pedagogy lays emphasis on standardised testing. But standardisation does not account for particular situations or interests, it only creates an environment where children are proficient in test taking.

The performance of a person in a test may not necessarily show the extent of their knowledge. For example, a student may manage to get good grades by cramming the night before the exam and reproducing the answers the next day but this does not lead to retention of the subject matter for practical use. Factors like ill-health and nervousness despite preparing well may also lead to a decrease in marks.

“Due to personal reasons, my brother, Md Rahabuddin, could not continue his studies after a point. In spite of that, today he runs a big and successful business and is the director of Hitech Mobiles,” says Md Kamaluddin, who is another of the directors of the company.

The education system loses out on many talented people by defining intelligence through exams that are inadequate as well as constricting. All children have the potential to achieve. Each child has his or her own unique abilities, interests and personal qualities that determine which path he or she can take in life.

“I was an average student in school and exams were always stressful. I knew that I wanted to join my dad’s business of sound and event management, which had little to do with academics. Once I started working, I learnt a lot from experience. I wouldn’t say that much of what I learnt in school helped me in my work life. I feel that mainstream education and exams are not for everyone. I am doing fairly well in my career and I do not owe this to my school studies or exams.” says 26-year-old Viraat Bedi, a visual jockey at the night club, Encode, in Calcutta.

One of the most common arguments offered against exams is that they test for rote recall only and not for deeper understanding. The education system in this country is too often about spoon-feeding, pressurising and standardising children.

“Exams, as they stand now, do not actually test what children have learnt in class or what they are expected to learn,” says educationist Pabitra Sarkar. “The question papers are set in such a manner that the previous year’s questions are avoided. The teachers make suggestions on the basis of earlier question papers, so many don’t teach the topic that came in the last year’s paper. In this way a few important topics are missed out. That is one problem. The second is that the entire system of exams is joyless. It creates terror in the minds of students and guardians. Educationists should sit together and think how they can make exams joyful, ” he adds.

Only then will students start having a different perspective towards exams.