Exams Should Be Abolished

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Exams Should Be Abolished
Public exams, whether they are the National Curriculum Tests
(SATs), GCSEs, A-Levels or similar, should be scrapped. These
exams, and all the associated paraphernalia of league tables,
performance pay, should go.
This is not an argument against any sort of testing in schools, when
done in the proper way, regular testing of pupils gives teachers a
valuable insight into their progress, strengths and weaknesses,
provided the limitations of the test and its results are fully
understood. Such data can also help towards a teacher’s
professional development, as they can see exactly in what ways
they are proving effective, and where there is room for
improvement. This is an argument against high-stakes testing,
where the pupils are not the beneficiaries. High stakes testing is
where the test scores are used by various organisations or
individuals for their own purposes, and where these data are used
as a proxy for other, less quantifiable, things.
These high-stakes exams (I’ll just refer to these as ‘exams’ from
now on) are used for a number of purposes. They are used by
employers and Universities to select employees and students.
When converted into league table form they are used by parents
looking to pick a school for their child, and by Ofsted and the
Department of Education as a stick to beat schools with. Schools
will then likely use them as a stick to beat teachers with. But exam
results, however intelligently they are handled in the creation of a
league table, are too crude to represent anything more than
themselves. Sets of results do not represent the ability or potential

of a student. Even individual results don’t. I received an ‘A’ grade
for GCSE Physics purely on the basis of a good memory and
reasonably good revision. I do not think like a physicist however
much I might like to (not often).
Results for a whole school do not represent anything either. Often
the term used is ‘standards’. But if you are judging a school on
exam results you are not judging the standard of the education
provided by that school, unless you define a good standard of
education as ‘getting students to get high grades in exams’. And if
that is your idea of a good education, I feel sorry for you. In fact,
the obsession with exam grades above all else has led to a complete
distortion of compulsory education. One effect is a narrowing of
the curriculum to focus on the ‘core’ subjects (English, Maths and
Science), to the comparative neglect of everything else. But don’t
think those subjects get away scot-free. Because of the intense
focus on these subjects, the pressure to ‘teach to the test’ is
immense, leading to an impoverished curriculum likely to put
students off these vital areas of study.
Genuine, exciting teaching and learning is replaced with constant,
tedious revision of what is likely to appear in the exam papers. And
in the exams, the dullards who have the right keywords and
techniques will outperform the bright students who made the
mistake of actually being interested in the subject rather than
methods for getting marks. But doesn’t passing exams benefit
students? Only in a narrow sense. If you get all A grades you are
more likely to get into the University of your choice, or get a betterpaid job (if you can get a job at all). But looked at as a whole,
raising exam grades for the majority of students is utterly

pointless. It’s what game-theorists call a ‘zero-sum game’ –
because the grades have been raised overall, the relative differences
between the students will still be there. So if you might have
otherwise got a C, but because of exam-centred teaching you got a
B, but all your B-worthy classmates (and others in other schools)
instead got an A, you have secured absolutely no advantage. This
example provides an opening to my next criticism of exams – the
purpose they serve in a capitalist society riven with scarcity,
division and hierarchy.
I dealt with some of the justifications outlined for ‘high-stakes’
testing, and the testing culture, in the previous part. In this part, I
want to peel back the surface justifications, to deal with the real
reason why formal examinations – and qualifications – are deemed
such an important part of the education system. A capitalist society
is one in which there is hierarchy, and scarcity. There are good
jobs, bad jobs and no jobs. You can go to an ‘elite’ university, a
merely ‘good’ university, an also-ran or not to university at all.
Creating this hierarchy (and resulting from it) is the limited
number of people that can fill the ‘good’ jobs, or go to the ‘elite’
universities. There therefore needs to be a sorting mechanism.
Without underplaying the ‘old school tie’ factor, which is as strong
as it ever was (look at the proportions of lawyers, judges, top
journalists, bankers, politicians etc. who went to private schools),
examinations perform the function of sorting applicants, by
assigning to them letters or numbers – grades and UCAS scores for
I outlined briefly in the previous post how these letters and
numbers give us an inadequate view of ability and potential. It

should suffice to simply add that success in one educational context
(formal schooling) will not necessarily ensure success in another
(the freer environment of a university), and the same applies for
the world of work. Employers and universities need quick and
nasty ways to sort people, and these methods are inadequate,
inefficient and take no account of the individual’s development and
potential contributions.
A far better system would mean acting as if both individuals and
society mattered. Individuals have a need for meaningful study
and work. Society needs to ensure that it gets from individuals
their best. These goals can coincide. But they cannot in an
anarchic, self-interested short-termist system like capitalism.
Treating individuals as complex wholes, with various capacities
and potentialities, interests, motivations and talents at varying
degrees of development, rather than abstract things to which
numbers can be attached for the purposes of fitting them into
probably ill-suited roles, would be good for the health and
functioning of a society, as well as the health and wellbeing of
In what seems to be a developing theme across some of my posts, I
state that actually, rather than privileging the collective over the
individual, Marxism, in it’s goal to abolish capitalism, actually
resolves the contradiction between collective and individual. The
bourgeois idealists (champions of individualism!) ended up
creating a system which depersonalised and gutted the individual,
while simulataneously creating problems – and offering precious
few solutions – for the collective, for society. Marxists see the
development and progression of individuals and the collective as

two sides of the same coin. That’s why I want to abolish exams.
Because I would like to live in a society where the society creates
well rounded, healthy, happy individuals who are able to develop
themselves to the fullest extent for their own and society’s benefit.
Exams – those crude sorting mechanisms borne of a socioeconomic
system based on and generating hierarchy and the scarcity of
routes to the good life – are too vulgar tools for such a task, and
will not be needed.

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