Myths that surround exams Lesson Plans

by Bertell Ollman From Z Net

Psychologist, Bill Livant, has remarked, When a liberal sees a beggar, he [sic] says the system isn’t working. When a Marxist does, he [sic] says it is. The same insight could be applied today to the entire area
of education. The learned journals, as well as the popular media, are full of studies documenting how little most students know and how fragile are their basic skills. The cry heard almost everywhere is The
system isn’t working.

Responding to this common complaint, conservatives starting (but not ending) with the Bush adminstration have offered a package of reforms in which increased testing occupies the central place.

The typical liberal and even radical response to this has been to demonstrate that such measures are not likely to have the desired effect. The assumption, of course, is that we all want more or less the same thing from a system of education and that conservatives have made an error in the means they have chosen to attain our common end. But what if students are already receiving, more or less, the kind of education that conservatives favor. This would cast their proposals for reform in another light. What if, as Livant points out in the case of beggars, the system is working

Before detailing what young people learn from their forced participation in this educational ritual, it may be useful to dispose of a number of myths that surround exams and exam taking in our society

(l) /Exams are a necessary part of education./ Education, of one kind or another has existed in all human societies, but exams have not; and the practice of requiring frequent exams is a very recent innovation and still relatively rare in the world.

(2) /Exams are unbiased./ In 1912, Henry Goddard, a distinguished psychologist, administered what he claimed were culture free IQ tests to new immigrants on Ellis Island and found that 83 percent of Jews, 80 percent of Hungarians, 79 percent of Italians, and 87 percent of Russians were feebleminded, adding that all feebleminded are at least potential criminals. IQ tests have gotten better since then, but given the character of the testing process, the attitudes of those who make up any test, and the variety of people coming from so many different backgrounds who take it, it is impossible to produce a test that does not have serious biases

(3) /Exams are objectively graded./ Daniel Stark and Edward Elliot sent two English essays to 200 high school teachers for grading. They got back 142 grades. For one paper, the grades ranged from 50 to 99; for the other, the grades went from 64 to 99. But English is not an objective subject, you say. Well, they did the same thing for an essay answer in mathematics and got back grades ranging from 28 to 95. Though most of the grades they received in both cases fell in the middle ground, it was evident that a good part of any grade was the result of who marked the exam and not of who took it.

(4) /Exams are an accurate indication of what students know and of intelligence in general./ But all sorts of things, including luck in getting (or not getting) the questions you hoped for and one’s state of mind and emotions the day of the exam, can have an important affect on the result.

(5) /All students have an equal chance to do well on exams,/ that even major differences in their conditions of life have a negligible impact on their performance. There is such a strong correlation between students family income and their test scores, however, that the radical educational theorist, Ira Shor, has suggested (tongue-in-cheek) that college applications should ignore test scores altogether and just ask students to enter their family income. The results would be the same with relatively few exceptions, the same people would get admitted into college, but then, of course, the belief that there is equality of opportunity in the classroom would stand forth as the myth that it is.

(6) /Exams are the fairest way to distribute society’s scarce resources/ to the young, hence the association of exams with the ideas of meritocracy and equality of opportunity. But if some students consistently do better on exams because of the advantages they possess and other students do not outside of school, then directing society’s main benefits to these same people compounds the initial inequality.

(7) /Exams, and particularly the fear of them, are necessary in order to motivate students to do their assignments./ Who can doubt that years of reacting to such threats have produced in many students a reflex of the kind depicted here The sad fact is that the natural curiosity of young people and their desire to learn, develop, advance, master, and the pleasure that comes from succeeding which could and should motivate all studying has been progressively replaced in their psyches by a pervasive fear of failing. This needn’t be. For the rest, if the only reason a student does the assignments is that he/she is worried about the exam, he/she should not be taking that course in the first place.

(8) /Exams are not injurious, socially, intellectually, and psychologically. /Complaining about exams may be most students first truly informed criticism about society because they are its victims and know from experience how exams work. They know, for example, that exams don’t only involve reading questions and writing answers. They also involve forced isolation from other students, prohibition on talking and walking around and going to the bathroom, writing a lot faster than usual, physical discomfort, worry, fear, anxiety, and often guilt.

They are also aware that exams do a poor job of testing what students actually know. But it is here that most of their criticisms run into a brick wall, because most students don’t know enough about society to understand the role that exams especially taking so many exams play in preparing them to take their place in it.

But if exams are not what most people think they are, then what are they The short answer is that exams have less to do with testing us for what we are supposed to know than teaching us what the other aspects of instruction cannot get at (or get at as well). To understand what that

is we must examine what the capitalist class require from a system of education. Here, it is clear that capitalists need a system of education that provides young people with the knowledge and skills necessary for their businesses to function and prosper. But they also want schools to give youth the beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and associated habits of behavior that make it easy for capitalists to tap into this store of knowledge and skills. They need all this not only to maximize their profits, but to help reproduce the social, economic, and even political conditions and accompanying processes that allow them to extract profits. Without workers, consumers and citizens who are well versed in and accepting of their roles in these processes, the entire capitalist system would grind to a halt. It is here particularly as regards the behavioral and attitudinal prerequisites of capitalist rule that the culture of exams has become indispensable. So what do exams teach students

(l) The crush of tests gets students to believe that one gets what one works for, that the standards by which this is decided are objective and fair, and therefore that those who do better deserve what they get; and that the same holds for those who do badly. After a while, this attitude is carried over to what students find in the rest of society, including their own failures later in life, where it encourages them to blame the victim (themselves or others) and feel guilty for what is not their fault.

(2) By fixing a time and a form in which they have to deliver or else, exams prepare students for the more rigorous discipline of the work situation that lies ahead.

(3) In forcing students to think and write faster than they ordinarily do, exams get them ready mentally, emotionally, and also morally for the speed-ups they will face on the job.

(4) The self-discipline students acquire in preparing for exams also helps them put up with the disrespect, personal abuse, and boredom that awaits them on the job.

(5) Exams are orders that are not open to question discuss this, outline that, etc. And taking so many exams conditions students to accept unthinkingly the orders that will come from their future employers.

(6) By fitting the infinite variety of answers given on exams into the straitjacket of A, B, C, D, and F, students get accustomed to the standardization of people as well as of things and the impersonal job categories that will constitute such an important part of their identity

later on.

(7) Because passing an exam is mainly good for enabling students to move up a grade so they can take a slightly harder exam, which if they pass enables them to repeat the exercise/ ad infinitum,/ they begin to see life as an endless series of ever more complicated exams, where one never finishes being judged and the need for being prepared and respectful of the judging authorities only grows.

(8) Because their teachers know all the right answers to the exams, students tend to assume that those who are above them in other hierarchies also know much more than they do.

(9) Because their teachers genuinely want them to do well on exams, students also mistakenly assume that those in relation of authority over them in other hierarchies are also rooting for them to succeed, that is, have their best interests at heart.

(10) Because most tests are taken individually, striving to do well on a test is treated as something that concerns students only as individuals. Cooperative solutions are equated with cheating, if considered at all.

(11) Because one is never quite ready for an exam, there is always something more to do, students often feel guilty for reading materials or engaging in activities unrelated to the exam. The whole of life, it would appear, is but preparation for exams or doing what is required in order to succeed (as those in charge define success).

(12) With the Damocles sword of a failing (or for some a mediocre) grade hanging over their heads throughout their years in school (including university), the inhibiting fear of swift and dire punishment never leaves students, no matter their later situation.

(13) Coupled with the above, because there is always so much to be known, exams especially so many of them tend to undermine students self- confidence and to raise their levels of anxiety, with the result that most young people remain unsure that they will ever know enough to criticize existing institutions and become even physically uncomfortable at the thought of trying to put something better in their place.

(14) Exams also play a key role in determining course content, leaving little time for material that is not on the exam. Among the first things to be omitted in this tightening of the curriculum are students own reactions to the topics that come up, collective reflection on the main problems of the day, alternative points of view and other possibilities generally, the larger picture (where everything fits), explorations of topics triggered by individual curiosity, and anything else that is likely to promote creative, cooperative, or critical thinking.

(15) Exams also determine the form in which most teaching goes on, since for any given exam there is generally a best way to prepare for it. Repetition and forced memorization, even learning by rote, and frequent quizzes (more exams) leave littletime for other more imaginative approaches to conveying, exchanging and questioning facts and ideas.

(16) Multiple exams become one of the main factors determining the character of the relation between students (with students viewing each other as competitors for the best grades), the relation between students and teachers (with most students viewing their teachers as examiners and

graders first, and most teachers viewing their students largely in terms of how well they have done on exams), also the relation between teachers and school administrators (since principals and deans now have an objective standard by which to measure teacher performance), and even the relation between school administrations and various state bodies (since the same standard is used by the state to judge the work of schools and school systems). Exams mediate all social relations in the educational system in a manner similar to the way money mediates relations between people in the larger society with the same dehumanizing results.

While exams have been with us for a long time, socializing students in all the ways that I have outlined above, it is only recently that the mania for exams has begun to affect government policies. Why now Globalization, or whatever it is one chooses to call this new stage, has arrived. But to which of its aspects is the current drive for more exams a carefully fashioned response The proponents of such educational reform point to the intensified competition between industries and workers worldwide and the increasingly rapid pace at which economic changes of all kinds are occurring. To survive in this new order requires people, they say, who are not only efficient, but also have a variety of skills (or can quickly acquire them) and the flexibility to change tasks whenever called upon to do so. Thus, the only way to prepare our youth for the new economic life that awaits them is to raise standards of education, and that entails, among other things, more exams.

A more critical approach to globalization begins by emphasizing that the intensification of economic competition worldwide is driven by capitalists efforts to maximize their profits. It is this that puts all the other developments associated with globalization into motion. It is well known that, all things being equal, the less capitalists pay their workers and the less money they spend on improving work conditions and reducing pollution, the more profit they make. Recent technological progress in transportation and communication, together with free trade and the abolition of laws restricting the movement of capital, allow capitalists to consider workers all over the world in making their calculations. While the full impact of these developments is yet to be felt, we can already see two of its most important effects in the movement of more and more companies (and parts of companies) out of the U.S. and a rollback of modest gains in wages, benefits, and work conditions that American workers have won over the last 50 years.

The current rage for more exams needs to be viewed as part of a larger strategy that includes stoking patriotic fires and chipping away at traditional civil liberties (both rationalized by the so-called war on terrorism), the promotion of family values, restrictions on sexual freedom (but not, as we see, on sexual hypocrisy), and the push for more prisons and longer prison sentences for a whole range of minor crimes.

Is there a connection between exams and the privatization of public education They appear to be separate, but look again. With new investment opportunities failing to keep up with the rapidly escalating surpluses in search of them (a periodic problem for a system that never pays its workers enough to consume all the wealth they produce), the public sector has become the latest last frontier for capitalist expansion. Given its size and potential for profit, what are state prisons or utilities or transport or communication systems or other social services next to public education But how to convince the citizenry that companies whose only concern is with the bottom line can do a better job educating our young than public servants dedicated to the task What seems impossible could be done if somehow education were redefined to emphasize the qualities associated with business and its achievements. Then by definition business could do the job better than any public agency.

Enter exams. Standardization, easily quantifiable results, and the willingness to reshape all intervening processes to obtain them characterize the path to success in both exams and business. When that happens (and to the extent it has already happened), putting education in the hands of businesspeople who know best how to dispense with inessentials becomes a perfectly rational thing to do.

What should students do about all this Well, they shouldn’t refuse to take exams (unless the whole class gets involved) and they shouldn’t drop out of school. Given the relations of power inside education and throughout the rest of society, that would be suicidal and suicide is never good politics. Rather, they should become better students by learning more about the role of education, and exams in particular, in capitalism. Nowhere does the contradiction between the selfish and manipulative interests of our ruling class and the educational and developmental interests of students stand out in such sharp relief as in the current debate over exams. Students of all ages need to get involved in this debate in order to raise the consciousness of young people regarding the source of their special oppression and the possibility of uniting with other oppressed groups to create a truly human society. Everything depends on the youth of today doing better on this crucial test than my generation did, because the price for failure has never been so high. Will they succeed Can they afford to fail.