Who Put the Ass in Assessment? Exams vs Education.

“You were present on the occasion of the destruction of these trinkets, and, indeed, are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.”

If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is a ass — a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience.” Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist

We suppose that if pupils work under the direction of their teachers they will be well educated and that exam assessment will reflect the qualities inherent in the child, his teacher, and the institution he attends. Exams should be the cherry on top of the trifle of education, a celebration of learning rather than a precise calibration. Amanda Spielman, the Chair of the exams regulator Ofqual, is quoted in the Times as saying: “There is more to life than grades,” which she calls “a thin measure of real ability”; and she is absolutely right when she says: “Don’t let curriculum thinking collapse into qualification thinking. Curriculum comes first.” But, exams distort our education system, they are there to serve the needs of utility – precision measurement to sort out the sheepish ones from the goats and, too often, curriculum comes a distant second. In some secondary schools GCSEs are now taught over three years, some English departments teach the same text over and over, at key stage 3, GCSE and even onto A level if they can; too many teachers are prepared to narrow the education of their pupils to suit the precise needs of exam assessment and what it supposes they need to know.

This is a thought that came to mind when I read about the extraordinary story of Nigel Richards, a New Zealander, who has just become the ‘World Champion’ of the French version of Scrabble. The astonishing thing is that he is not a French speaker, apparently he knows the word ‘bonjour’ and can say the scores in French but that’s all. The French Scrabble association call him ‘the Chris Froome of Scrabble…’ Richards says about his strategy, “I try to score points. The goal is to score more points than your opponent.” His technique is to memorise the French Scrabble dictionary and to not overburden his memory with meanings but to ensure he focuses on ‘high-scoring combinations of letters.’ Something akin to this is afoot when children are spoon fed to pass exams, it is possible that the subject knowledge can suffer in the pursuit of measurable success. Richards is also a recluse who loves cycling and clearly can spend a lot of time revising and committing things to memory, though with no overarching need to know the ‘subject’.

The word ‘Scrabble’ was coined for the game and given the definition: ‘to grasp, collect, or hold on to something’ and it could be argued that Richards has done this with French except that he has missed out the whole point of French and that is the ability to communicate in it. Now Scrabble doesn’t purport to make you conversant in a language nor is it an exam, if it were a primary mode of language assessment it would be an Ass indeed but how many other exams or forms of assessment get in the way of learning about something?

As a drama teacher I would always tell my students ‘don’t worry about the exam grade, just make and learn about great theatre’ the subject was more important to me than the grade. For some children this might mean they got a B instead of an A because, as I told them in cases when I thought it might be true, ‘the examiner is not as good as you’. What they had written or produced on stage was the work of real interest, scholarship, talent and enthusiasm and some of those for whom this had occurred are now involved in the world of theatre making, teaching and/or writing about it. Many would get A grades which, of course, was delightful to see but my attitude was to treat both those imposters, the A and B, the same; bugger the grades it was the quality of the work, the art and the scholarship, that mattered.

Michael Gove said: “There is nothing wrong with teaching to the test, as long as ‘the test is right.’ But was he right? If we teach the subject right which would include how to communicate knowledge and argument in a thoughtful manner, then an exam would be a way of expressing a joy of learning a subject and rather than involve the student in learning exam speak the examiners should be aware of how to award ‘subject speak’. The examiner needs to be spoon fed by the subject.

In Trivium 21c there is an interview with Daniel T Willingham in which he says: “A cognitive psychologist would tell you that if your goal is for kids to know things, a terrible thing to do is to give them a disjointed list of things to know and ask them to try to memorise it.” Clearly Nigel Richards has shown, in the context of Scrabble, the disjointed list approach can work except, of course, he has worked out in the context of the test how to ensure, mathematically, he is capable of winning the game and good for him! However, as teachers, I think we need to remember that for us the subject should be more important than the assessment and for students it should be the experience of studying the subject that opens their eyes to the world rather than trains their eyes towards a mere grade.

26 thoughts on “Who Put the Ass in Assessment? Exams vs Education.

  1. This is the perfect analogy for testing that I have been trying to devise for ages. Thank you, I have the perfect intro for my next staff training session (with your permission). As for you question ‘Is Gove right?’ I’d say he was more far-right.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Martin … I always asked this question to interviewees … ‘If there were no exams, what would you teach, why would you teach it and how?’ Most couldn’t get further than thinking about the first statement, let alone answering the question. It tells us more about teacher training than the interviewee. C’est la vie!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The sad thing is that this is exactly the situation that existed before the introduction of the national curriculum. “O” levels were aimed at the top 20%, CSEs at the next 40%, and for the lowest achieving 40% in secondary schools, there were no exams at all. If your school had an intake skewed towards the lower end of the achievement range, as many schools in inner cities did, there were no examinations for the majority of the students in the school. And if you taught in a primary school in the majority of LEAs that had ended selection at 11, there were no exams at all. Teachers had to decide what their students had to learn. Of course this led to abuses, but at least teachers thought about John Wootton’s three questions. Now, for many teachers, not only do people not have answers to John’s questions. They can’t even conceive of a world where the questions would matter…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I like John’s three questions, can the potential answers be more than a philosophical exercise in our current education landscape or would they be completely irrelevant?


    2. There’s a lady I know who helps people create a life (including income) on their own terms who talks about coaching individuals where she asks; “imagine money and connections were no obstacle to you doing anything, so you do what you want, what would you do?” People break down at this point because they’ve never considered that question. So they, like so many, simply found ‘a’ place in life but not ‘their’ place and they feel empty.

      Just like many teachers who don’t consider the question of what they would teach if they could teach anything, to anyone, in any way. Global levels of employee engagement are at 13%. People accept being stuck somewhere for a pay-cheque and not being engaged, because in school we become so used to doing what is required without thinking about it. It’s ‘good for us’ right?

      School qualifications are necessary for many things, but sufficient for nothing… and whether they are necessary is increasingly up for debate. This scrabble man is very cool because he had full freedom to decide how to direct his mental energy, and he went for it. Students don’t have that luxury until school is done. Teacher’s don’t have that luxury until schooling changes.


  3. In my last ever assembly I said that if I had my time over again I would ban exams! I also used to tell all pupils that an exam result did not define them.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Good question. The thing is, at the beginning of my teaching career I did not question the status quo. It is only with years of experience and expansion of my knowledge of types of intelligence that I came to realise many very good brains weren’t being stimulated by the sort of education they were receiving. It was also the experience of having two quite bright children of my own who just saw things differently! The exams system did not really suit them.


  4. Great post, as usual Mr Triv (or can I call you 21?). Have you ever managed to spend any time with Tim Oates? It would be interesting to read your reflections on meeting a chap at the top of the assessment game, whose intellect will intrigue you, and who I think would surprise you by sharing many of the same concerns.

    We must catch up sometime soon … much news from north of Enfield!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ben, yes I’ve met Tim on a few occasions and always found him to be a sharp, interested and interesting commentator on all these issues. North of Enfield?!? is this somewhere from Game of Thrones?

      Be good to meet up.


  5. Martin, this is going to become the way for the entire education of some children.

    Prepped for reception baseline by worried parents.

    Prepped for Year 1 phonics.

    Prepped for new ks1 SATs.

    Bit of a rest…. then prepped for KS2 SATs.

    As you’ve alluded to, children will be doing 3 year long GCSEs practicing exam passing skills.

    My best English Literature A level module was an A when studying The Great Gatsby.

    Our teacher helped us come up with a formula for answering the question. We practiced until we could apply this formula, then we reaped the rewards with our grade.

    School is slowly becoming a list of exam passing formula. It’s taught, practiced, ‘learnt’ and successfully applied to get the grades.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Reblogged this on THIS Education Blog and commented:
    Martin Robinson via @SurrealAnarchy writing in the words that I have been trying to find through my thoughts in THIS Education Blog.
    It explains about the problem with exams. Passing an exam does not necessarily give you the skills to operate effectively in life or in the workplace. An exam will demonstrate good memory skills, but does it really make you good at a subject or give you a real ability to be able to do something well?
    For me education is about the curriculum being provided and how young people are challenged.
    My thoughts are that this blog is based around the big question in education right now and how we should be applying education to the real world.
    Enjoy, I hope it will make you think…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. An exam will demonstrate good memory skills, but does it really make you good at a subject or give you a real ability to be able to do something well?

      Examination systems have their disadvantages, but they do a lot more than test memory.

      Sensible exams these days provide formula sheets, so that for my Maths students a good memory isn’t a huge advantage. And calculators move the exams away from routine arithmetic too. In other subjects well written questions can move the testing away from largely memory and process skills. If yours don’t, then this is a fault of the examiners, not a fault of exams in general.

      The biggest test of exams is whether the student works or not. I’ve seen lots of students who “don’t really suit exams” largely because they refused to accept that they had to knuckle down and work. They wanted a system that rewarded their ability without them having to do any work. As part of this process exams teach time-management skills, because lots of kids are prepared to work, but never quite get around to it unless faced with a deadline. (Yes, internal assessments also test timeliness, but from far less far out – they don’t sort out those that can work months ahead of the target date.)

      Also tested is reaction under stress. I have had lots of students who are great when there is no pressure, but crack under even the simplest test. This is a feature of a person that employers and tertiary institutes want to know (the worst people to work with, in my experience, are those that crack just as they need to be able to perform above normal, because they then pass their work on to me). Again “exams don’t show their true ability” is often code for “cracks under pressure”.

      So exams test natural ability, memory, hard work and ability to work under pressure. You may think that isn’t useful, but I don’t just care how clever my doctor or lawyer is, I also care about how hard they work and whether they will crack at moments of stress.

      I did very well in exams but have a terrible memory. I compensated by taking time to really work on memorising the key items I needed. I can’t think of any students I know that that worked hard and had some natural ability but who failed to do well in exams solely because they struggled to memorise stuff, which tends to put a lie to the canard that exams only test memory.

      Poor mental organisation, lack of hard work or failure to cope with stress are all much more likely. And, of course, exams actually do test natural ability to quite a large degree.

      I prefer an assessment system which mixes both internal and external exams. That allows students to perform in two different ways, but keeps the internal system honest.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. When I was passing through the formal education system, I always regarded the syllabus as the thing, and the test/examination as the evaluation of how well I had grasped it. Anything covered in the syllabus could subsequently be examined, and, generally, there was a lot of material to cover. I was never aware that teaching to the test was even possible. In fact, I recall that there were a number of different examination boards, some offering easier syllabuses than others. The qualifications obtained were, therefore, not equal (a bit like University degrees). Schools had to make a decision as to which qualification board to choose, and everyone knew there was a difference.

    Of course, one major difference was that the level of accountability for schools was much, much lower than it is now. Also, I don’t think being an examination board was a big money spinner (?). This comes back to the question of what education is for.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is something along the lines of what I was about to reply. I don’t fully believe Dylan Wiliam’s assessment of ‘O’ levels as ‘aimed at’ a percentage, although this is possibly how they turned out in England. As I was going through the system, much like yourself, I saw ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels as being a means of demonstrating a level of education and the specific subjects that I knew something about. I was suprised to find that many people believed them to be a rite of passage that had to be ‘attained’ at a particular age. In actual fact, they were (are) public examinations that could be taken at any age and often were. Very few people in my school did not take these exams, but not everyone took them at the same age. My school was not ‘accountable’ but responsible enough to know that their role was to provide us a with a good education. I’m glad I missed the GCSE era entirely. Qualifications should be sought, not foisted.

      I have also written about my growing scepticism of the holy grail of pupil attainment. The criteria for this in its current conception are narrow and do not represent quality of education, nor lead inexorably to quality of life and a fulfilling career:


      I do, in fact, agree with Gove’s view – ‘as long as the test is right’ – but I would imagine I would disagree as to what constitutes a ‘right’ test and the ease of achieving this. Taking away school accountability for attainment would be a start.


  8. I think that Gove may be a bit misrepresented in that statement. If the test is right could very well mean the type of assessments that I had to undertake where the syllabus had to be taught in its entirety and the questions could be anything on there. There was no guarantee that a question on the Conservative government of the 1980s would come up each year for example, or the type of question relating to WW2 history. Yes I had to memorise BUT in the context of writing essays, writing a load of facts was never going to get top marks, it was the arguments and how they were evidenced.

    From a drama point of view – I actually do get why you would say assessment is less useful – especially written ones – because in the end it is the performance, play, quality of play script, production that matter. I have already said that I don’t care if the people I pay to see at the theatre got an A in a drama exam as it is unlikely to affect the quality of their performance!

    However, I do not think that this applies to all subjects. The question of narrowing the curriculum is one I agree with but only because of the meaningless rubbish that is often taught in between does not enable children to grasp the fundamentals and therefore exam years are more stressful. When I did my GCSE’s and A-Levels I had nothing like the stress that current students have but I was being prepared all along with a traditional academic education in those subjects where it was relevant.

    One of the readers above listed the following but from my point of view It should read more like this in many of the inner city schools I have worked in:

    Hands off, play-based, no direct instruction in case it ‘traumatises the child’:
    “Prepped for reception baseline by worried parents.”

    Child-directed, little or no teacher direction, focus on social skills not literacy or numeracy.
    Year 1 teachers have to straddle the divide and somehow get children up to scratch to Year 1 standards even though nursery and reception teachers have neglected literacy and numeracy (don’t forget you can pass the EYFS profile threshold with low scores on both)
    Year 1 teacher crams all the Phonics that should already have been learnt and the Year 1 phonics:
    “Prepped for Year 1 phonics.”

    Children still insecure with reading, writing and numeracy and catching up due to later start.
    “Prepped for new KS1 SATs.”

    “Bit of a rest….” from any actual learning for three years when they would be able to learn without huge amounts of pressure.

    Instead learning by osmosis promoted still, struggling readers have to have started to ingrain poor reading strategies (yes I am talking about picture cues and guessing the word) which simply can not help them to learn in KS2. Children have a more watered down curriculum as need to catch up on literacy and numeracy skills. Children have now been behind for 3 – 4 years compared to their peers.
    Still ‘fun’ activities at the expense of knowledge means they are insecure in their learning in a range of contexts.
    Disruption by key players who can’t be expelled for ridiculous reasons and usually has some link to poor literacy and numeracy skills, as well as the idea that learning is less important than having their whims met (Nursery and Reception still holding sway in their minds then)
    Consultants come in and push more child-centred learning techniques by rebranding and repacking them over and over again. All attempts by teachers to argue that they don’t work are usually silenced by concerns about Ofsted who continue to write glowing reports for those schools that teach in a constructivist manner despite the lack of results.

    Year 6 teachers freak out as all the pressure of results falls on them so children spend a year cramming in the learning they should have done in the previous 3 years
    “then prepped for KS2 SATs.”

    2 years of more constructivism, despite its abject failure in primary school, continuation of children unable to read, not accessing the curriculum and disrupting.

    Schools forced to do 3 year long GCSEs practicing exam passing skills.

    “My best English Literature A level module was an A when studying The Great Gatsby.” My best A-Level (all of them non-modular) was Sociology where, in a year group consisting of middle class and working class children, children from both the private and state sector, from different ethnic backgrounds, different genders and from all over my city, I had the knowledge, understanding and skills that meant i was able to come top of my year. I also featured in the top 5 in History and Psychology.

    That exams that are so casually dismissed here were my lifeline out of poverty, was my route to living abroad and having experiences that my parents income would never have allowed for.

    Before arguing that A’s and B’s are the same – think first about the difference that having A’s makes to the life chances of someone like me.

    I am happy to defend the system that I went through, exams and all, so can someone find the equivalent of me who was taught in an entirely progressive way and has been able to equally do the things they want to in life please step forward. I would listen gladly.


  9. Exams should be used as a sophisticated way of corroborating professional assessment in schools / colleges. Exams are just too blunt an instrument to be really productive.

    Unfortunately because of the OFSTED regime internal assessment cannot be relied upon. High stakes regimes mean pressure on teacher’s to cheat and no doubt one or two have lost their jobs because they wouldn’t.

    I suspect this was endemic prior to Gove closing the Vocational loop hole.

    In my view exams should be no more than fifty per cent of assessment (ideally less) but used to check the veracity of internal assessments.

    Unfortunately although Gove solved one or two of the most obvious problems in the old system he has done little else to progress education.

    Liked by 1 person

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