Exams come under the category of summative assessment-basically a snapshot of learning at a point in time. We use exams as a measure of achievement against other students on a bell curve and grade them accordingly. The problem with exams is that they are often measuring skills separate to the content of the course. So what are they really measuring?
I was quite lucky as a student that I had a good capacity for cramming and memorizing the content for exams. I used visual landscapes to tag concepts to a part of that picture, as well as using literary tools like anagrams to remember key points and a logical order. Yeah for me! But some of my classmates, many of whom were just as intelligent, more so in some ways, could only be described as literary dropkicks. They could sell snow to an Eskimo verbally, but writing was, well, their downfall. These guys are all doing well now, but largely due to their social IQs than any grades they received. As a teacher now, you have to be aware that for a student to do well in exams they have to learn how to prepare for and sit through exams.
Formative assessment measures a student’s progress from one point in time to another. Progress is the range of achievement gained in that time. This form of assessment is inclusive for high and low achieving students as it identifies the learning stage a student is currently at, defines the specific criteria or skills needed to move ahead and gives them credit for that improvement. This is a valuable tool for teachers in the classroom as it meets individual student needs. It places the focus on teaching and learning rather than the pressure of content coverage for an exam. Also, because students are monitored over time, work and study skills are maintained to a higher standard.
Exams have been a part of educational systems for many years. The structure of exams has changed very little, even though our understanding of how students learn has progressed immensely. We understand that there are seven accepted learning styles, but how many are suited by exams? It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as many schools are changing how they measure progress and achievement. The problem is the link between schools and industry standards. Do potential employers understand what we are trying to do or do they want to see exam results?
Exams, tests and diagnostic assessments have their place and are useful tools for school administrators in the fact that they provide a big picture for an institution and a nation. They raise alarm bells telling us what is going well and what needs attention. They also help us organize and rationalize our schools. Where should our special needs funding be spent? What resources can we provide to improve information skills in our students?
The challenge is creating the best mix of summative and formative assessment in schools. The answer is definitely a mix of both, although administration and the classroom need to be kept well apart. Compromising quality learning by teaching to an exam is not the answer; if a teacher or school must be measured on performance, then let it be by the progress students have made, as this is the true indicator of quality teaching. If a student must be measured, then let all of his or her talents be recognized as well as the total of their efforts throughout a school year.