The (non?) value of Exams

More and more I am questioning the value of examinations, most especially for Year 7 & 8 students. This questioning stems from the fact that our school is moving towards “connected learning approaches” in Year 7 next year. Furthermore, our teachers are pursuing and embracing an inquiry based approach to learning which will increasingly result in students taking more responsibility for their learning. In 2012, we adopted mixed ability classes in Year 7, a decision based on research, and we are now asking should this be the case for both Year 7 and Year 8 for 2013?

Last week, we had exams in the areas of English, Maths, Science and HSIE for year 7 to 10. (As an aside, why was it that only 4 of the 8 KLAs had examinations? Hhhmmm!). As a result of “Exam Week”, the day to day of schooling changed in the following ways:

·         Bell times had to be altered so specifically timed exams could be implemented for the week.

·         The Hall became a revolving examination centre with different year groups sitting different exams at different times for different subjects.

·         When not sitting exams, during ‘normal class time’ students were given “study time” teachers. I must admit, I have done exactly the same in the past!

·         Teachers were seen to be marking while the students were studying for their next exam. Again, I have done exactly the same in the past!

·         14 students went home sick from school during the week. This is an abnormally high number.

It probably changes in a whole lot of others ways for many, the above is just a snapshot. The above reflects the reality of many schools, but does is reflect a sound learning environment? I understand a sound learning environment to be one which:

 ·         provides students with greater autonomy and choice of subject matter and pace of study;

 ·         involves students in more decision‐making processes;

 ·         requires extensive use of digital technologies; and,

 ·         results in memorable experiences where students ‘learn by doing’ with relevance to the real world.

Are these characteristics associated with examinations blocks? I think not!

I know some people will push the line that students need to start early to prepare for the HSC (which not all students will do), to get an ATAR (not all those who sit the HSC will pursue an ATAR), to go to university (not all students who attain an ATAR will commence university). So, how important is it for students to sit exams?

Over the next week, I am sure that, on more than one occasion a student will say, “We’ve done the exams, why do we have to do this work?” This thinking probably explains why some schools ‘make them work right up until the end’ and have students sit exams at the very end of the semester/year. (Again, I have worked in one school which does this, and know other schools who continue to do this). Students finish a semester/year with the examination block as their last learning experience for the year. Then, when they drift off into holidays, teachers mark exams, collate the marks with others assessments, write reports and then send the reports home. Where was the feedback for students? Doesn’t Hattie say something about the importance of feedback? If there is no feedback to students, why was it important for students to sit the exam in the first place?

With my unsettledness about exams resonating loudly within, I was pleased to read these minutes from a recent faulty meeting which read, Discussion on the future value of end-of-year exams. Do they still serve a purpose? We have used assessment marks to grade students into classes but is that still valid if classes are becoming more mixed ability (Year 7/8)? What is the purpose of exams from the student’s point of view i.e. do they prepare for it; what is the point of school after the exams are over in week 6? Are there other ways to assess?”

I leave you with those questions and seek answers from you, or more questions of course!


Best Wishes,


16 thoughts on “The (non?) value of Exams

  1. Some thought provoking questions Greg. Like you, I have questioned the value of examinations as a valid measure of student learning. The majority of students do little, if any quality preparation for exams and some students find exam situations distressing. I have always wondered about what learning gain has been retained after examinations, if you repeated the same examination say (4) weeks later would students perform the same or worse? Examinations favour those students who have good retention and written literacy skills. Do exams ingrain a love of learning or encourage them to be life long learners?? I still think examinations serve a purpose in preparing our students for the HSC, however, is this critical in years 7 and 8? Can we not prepare our students in other (better) ways besides examinations to have the critical thinking skillls necessary to be successful in the HSC and more importantly beyond school? I think it is important for us all as teachers to reflect about quality assessment and the purpose of why we do what we do. I look forward to reading others opinions on this topic.

  2. What a wonderfully refreshing view of yr 7 and 8 education. How do we get this point across to school leadership? Quality assessment is what is needed for sound learning and enjoyable experiences. Mater Dei is a school I would like to visit.I look forward to reading others thoughts on this topic.

  3. Now that got me thinking!I fear that we sometimes set exams so that we have something to write on the reports. It seems a poor justification to put students through a stressful and unproductive week. Perhaps older students need to learn how to successfully prepare for HSC, but I agree that some alternative could be explored for year 7 and 8. Wouldn’t it be great to see these students producing something special to demonstrate what they have learned, then sharing their knowledge with each other?Our year 7’s recently held a presentation evening where the students produced their own displays to share with their parents. They even dressed up to be part of their display. I think the parents learned much more about their children’s progress than a report could ever say. The student’s enjoyed it and learned so much about research and presentation skills.

  4. Hi Greg, great post. Have to say, I haven’t been a fan of exams for many years, especially for years 7 &8. There are so many ways we can assess kids, they can assess each other, all FOR learning, or AS learning rather than OF learning. The, ‘they have to do it in the HSC’ argument is one that is … Bleak? Concern for external measurement rather than learning? Over emphasis of exam style testing as a means of assessment, at the expense of creativity and wonder. What are we doing? Whose learning purposes are served? Practice has a place, but we need to think about when, how and why. Especially why.

  5. I was interested to come across a tweet recently about Danish students being allowed to access the Internet during exams, though not communicate with any other person online. This generated much discussion on Twitter around the change in focus from knowledge retention and regurgitation to application and contextualisation, evaluation and reflection – key skills for our time. Over the last few years we have focused on quality assessment for our tasks and yet we have continued to persist with ‘Exam Week’ for our Stage 4 and 5 students. The most valuable learning I have witnessed in recent years took place across a number of subjects and year groups in our Guided Enquiry Pilot that took place in the last four weeks of the school year in 2011; traditionally an unproductive time, after exams. And yet, there it was, high levels of student engagement and enjoyment! Fancy that! Maybe we could all learn something from the Danes!

  6. I too have often considered the value of exams particularly in this age group. As exam week approached and then during this week, I often quizzed my year 7-10 students, usually in Homegroup, about how they felt toward the approaching exam/s. The responses? ‘Anxious’ ‘stressed’ ‘can’t wait until this week’s over.’ Another question ‘Have you prepared?’ the most common answer ‘not at all.’ As we shift our approach to a learner centred one, perhaps it is time to question the value of some of these types of assessment. As we try to cater for all learners are exams not just catering for one type of learner? Those, that as stated above, can retain or wrote learn information. We are only assessing one small aspect of a student’s ability.Further to this we then reflect this in the up and coming reports…When ‘Sam’ sees that he got 60% for the English exam does this just provide the feedback that he is an ‘average’ English student. A mindset that sticks with him/her for years to come, yet perhaps not a true reflection of Sam’s ability in English as a whole let alone potential. Teacher Robyn Ewing touched on this in yesterday’s SMH ( – worth a read! A comment from her report card in grade 6 reading ‘maths problems are the only weakness’ imbedding the idea in Robyn’s mind that she is hopeless at math when in fact the opposite were true.To me this is doing the opposite of instilling in our students the ‘desire to learn.’

  7. We have no formal exam block for students in Years 7-9. This opens up a much broader range of assessment opportunities and allows a much greater authentic focus on assessment for learning approaches. If subjects want to assess in an exam style then smaller topic quizzes are better uses of time and less stressful for students. I have also found in the past that Yr 7 Half Yearly Exams were a key point where we lost a lot of students in terms of engagement, application and behaviour. Why? They were officially told they were not ‘smart’ for the first time in High School. This was before they were really taught how to study or complete these tasks effectively so we found them a bit of a disaster for student self efficacy. Setting them up for failure essentially. I think we need to do everything we can for students to believe in themselves as learners before we hit them with exam blocks.The week for exams is also usually preceded by a week of revision. You can lose 2 weeks of teaching time, twice per year. 10% of our teaching time dedicated to exams?? Then teachers are busily marking for a week to get reports done etc. This means that minimal feedback is normally given on responses. How much do students learn from completing these exams? I would also suggest that where students perform poorly there is rarely the opportunity to re learn this as we need to move on or have moved on long ago. We had a student forum earlier in the Year for 7-9 & 10-12 students. Both groups made the point that they did not really like exams or learn much from them because if they did go poorly there was no chance to improve – it was over. This also meant that they did not normally care too much about the feedback as they could not really do anything with it anyway.I don’t think exam preparation needs to begin in Year 7 for the HSC. In fact, I think the vast majority of students benefit when it doesn’t!

  8. The Provocation = Win. I like. Great discussion above.I can only agree, and add these in terms of supporting questions:How useful is it for a parent to be given an arbitrary numeric reference to performance in an exam? Ditto for the student?Does the exam assess the skill of the course, or the skill of remembering?Are the ‘side-affects’ of exams counter-productive and counter-intuitive to learning? And learning how to learn?Does a parent want to be told: 75% in Exam A, or do they want some kind of feedback about 21st century skills?IMHO 70% is a less effective piece of symbolic information than:Your son/daughter has demonstrated:• Flexibility and Adaptability • Initiative and Self-Direction• Social and Cross-Cultural Skills • Productivity and Accountability • Leadership and Responsibility to authentically assess is problematic, and the ‘one size fits all’ days are long past. (If they were ever authentic?).There is a negotiated space between Student + Teacher = Authentic

  9. Great discussion and I love the general direction here. As a student who was good at remembering "stuff" for my short term benefit in exams I fully connect with the idea that exam results does not equal learning gain.Its exciting that as a Principal you can influence the parent community to accept a model where exams are replaced with quality feedback and assessment for learning. Surely this will lead to more meaningful learning and a positive school experience for all.

  10. Some great thoughts here. I question the value of exams until pathways are clearer. For many an exam will never be needed. I see little value in exams for learning. In fact, I find learning is interupted by exams. Last week it was difficult for students to focus or be engaged unless it was leading to exams. For assessment ongoing observation, checklist, conferences etc are far more valid and realistic. Few people need to know it all on the spot. They need to know where to find it and how to use it. I was lunching with friends on Saturday. There were 9 people and 1 Dr Google at the table. He was consulted on matters of "who was that conductor?", "When is that opera?" and "what is a fricadelle?" amongst other things. Knowing facts is almost redundant but thinking, challenging, utilizing knowledge and understanding are vital. Assessment of these should be ongoing and integrated into daily learning experiences. Exams confirm or contradict a much greater knowledge base about our students: that of the teacher and that of the students themselves.

  11. Provocative thoughts. The same thinking lead us to consider an alternative in Stage 4 that revalued the work of the classroom and has had an immediate impact upon the day to day work in our English classrooms.The comments from both teachers and students has been enlightening, particularly around the reduction of stress in 12-14 yo learners that a formalised, summative assessment program, including end of course/semester exams created.Let them be 17 & 18 when they are 17 & 18! There are so many other social pressures that demand that these kids be older than they really are.Other comments around how students view English more positively (over previously preferred subjects) because of the efforts of teachers to make the learning more student-centered only reinforces the decision to move to a more engaging pedagogy.The proof of the shift will obviously be in achievement of learning outcomes, but the bigger question is the value of building student self-efficacy, which is not as easily measured, particularly in the short term.There is no question, however, that student confidence in their own learning abilities will come to more students when they feel capable of enhancing their own learning on a daily basis rather than when they are put to the sword of examinations at the culmination of a learning episode.I’m obviously very interested to hear the results of your ‘shift’ and will stay tuned to your blog to see how it all eventuates.

  12. Are exams necessary? Is an interesting debate which has been going on for years, in 2007 the General Teaching Council in England in its report to parliament stated that “exams are failing to improve standards, leaving pupils demotivated and stressed” Keith Bartley in an interview with the observer in 2007 said “the range of knowledge and skills that tests assess is very narrow and to prepare young people for the world they need a set of skills that are far broader.’ Exams as they stood, he said, were ‘missing the point”. An online survey by Norma Budden found that only 14% of those surveyed found that exams were best method for diagnosing knowledge students possess, interesting enough 48% stated that hands-on activities/experiments in the classroom were far more beneficial. When asked who benefits from exams out of 450 odd recipients 41 % stated teachers 31% students and the rest were not sure.If you sit back and truly look at school exams you need to ask a few questions.Q. What are the benefits for students to sit an exam to recall information they have not studied for at least 15 weeks in some cases even longer.Q How many students really studied for the exam and put in their best effort?Q Are we setting up some kids to fail?Q What did the exam truly measure? Q Are we doing the exam for the pure sake of doing an exam?Q Could we have given the students a different type of assessment that would have been more beneficial to their learning?As educators we have the opportunity to try new methods of assessment and new methods to engage and measure student’s outcomes. Forget exams for students in years 7, 8, 9 and 10 be bold try something new.Notes :* Mr Bartley was the former Chief Executive, General Teaching Council for England and is now the Chief Executive, Dept for Education and Children (South Australia)

  13. I can only agree that examinations are "on their last legs." Of course, in Queensland as elsewhere, they are mandated in the Senior years. Last week my Year 12 Ancient History class achieved disappointingly low results in their final examination. But, in Term 3, when given the opportunity they created awesome documentaries, some up to 45 minutes in length.The fact of compulsion and having to parrot back facts is … Well, depressing! For Year 7 and 8 students I see even less value. PBL although I know little about it is clearly gathering steam. Perhaps the best quote I came across recently "if you receive 30 identical assessment items, you haven’t given them an assessment, you’ve given them a recipe." Exams prevent students displaying knowledge in their chosen form, trust the students!

  14. Our school does not have final exam blocks of year 7-10 students, but some faculties choose to file students into the hall to do an exam at the end of the year. My personal opinion is that end-of-year exams have almost zero value. My year 7 class have been engaged in project based learning where I have integrated multiple subjects into their projects. They are constantly making products that show their understanding and these products tell me much more about what students can do and need to improve on than any formal yearly exam can. I have weekly quizzes for students to see where they are at, but they are taken weekly, are short, kids mark each others’ quizzes and can see what they’ve done well and what they need to work on straight away, not in a week’s time or never. When in the real world in a real job do we ask a person to work all year and then tell them we will judge their performance with a one-off written paper? IMHO exams are being justified because it is something we always have done. It is in the culture of many teachers, parents and students. How can we change this culture so that our kids can learn?

  15. Greg sorry for the delay in getting back to you, however, I love the direction or journey that you are taking your school on. Exams are a very out dated way of assessing what students have learnt. If you want to increase anxiety levels for students, exam conditions will achieve that effect. We are doing everything possible to differentiate learning experiences for our students, so it makes sense perfect sense to explore more dynamic, innovative and creative ways of measuring what a student has learnt. I often came away from my HSC and SC marking experience really baffled by the marking criteria. When questions were poorly answered or it was clear that the paper was too difficult the markers would reassess the marking criteria even though the questions clearly showed that few students understood what was being asked of them. Does this not defeat the purpose of the exam? I am glad to do away with them.Technology today enables teachers & students to use a variety of mediums to teach, instruct, investigate, explore, illustrate and demonstrate knowledge and skills.There is such a vibrant, funfilled energy that we can bring into our learning environment for assessing students today that blows away the sitting of arduous, stressful & antiquated exams.

  16. Side note: typo of ‘faulty meeting’ for ‘faculty meeting’ near the end of your post strikes me as possibly Freudian. ;-)I wanted to comment on this paragraph (while loving everything you reflected on here:"I know some people will push the line that students need to start early to prepare for the HSC (which not all students will do), to get an ATAR (not all those who sit the HSC will pursue an ATAR), to go to university (not all students who attain an ATAR will commence university). So, how important is it for students to sit exams?"’Students need to do exams in order to prepare them to do more exams’ seems like very dodgy logic to me! There is very good evidence to show that entrance ranks are a poor predictor of university success, so a bigger-scale move away from these very heavily-weighted exams seems well overdue.My view is that education – in terms of pedadogy, curriculum and assessment – is all about repertoire. More possibilities, more variety, less over-reliance on one or two tools. Using tools for the things they do well, and finding other tools to fill in the gaps.I think exams do have a place, but as one form of evidence among many. There’s also the question of ‘what kind of exams?’ Open-book exams that focus on using knowledge are far superior to closed-book ones that focus on simple recall, for example.Questions in education are complex, and our answers shouldn’t be overly simple. But asking more questions, *particularly* about the stuff that’s so taken-for-granted that it becomes invisible, is always valuable.

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