What a mother told me about exams

A concerned parent and teacher raised concerns about the damaging effect primary school exams can have on children's motivation and confidence

An educator and a mother recently wrote me a letter where she voiced her concern at the stress that her young daughter is facing in preparing for her first formal exams. Despite having a diligent child who has been acknowledged as a high achiever and who works hard at school, the child and the parents are going through a traumatic time preparing their eight-year-old for her exams.

Children are expected to memorize loads of stuff, work under pressure and face time constraints to ensure that they can perform well under examination conditions. This is causing the child to have nightmares about getting high grades and has turned a clever smart child into one doubting herself, feeling miserable and stressed out at having to prove herself in an hour or so.

“Exams in the primary level are cruel, just plain cruel” she wrote. This mother’s concerns mirrored those put forward by some other parents. Children do get sick and some parents feel that if a child is sick on the day or if the child has a negative experience close to the exam, it will negatively influence the student’s performance during the exams. Furthermore she writes about those children that have limited or no support at home and she claims that exams at primary level “destroy and discourage the children’s motivation and spirit”.

There are divergent schools of thought on this subject. Some believe that examinations provide several educational benefits. These believe that examinations are an easy tool to regularly assess a student’s capability. Exams help a lot to bring an improvement in the individual’s knowledge because they provide regular feedback to the students who acknowledge their shortcomings and work on them.

Another possible advantage is that exams promote competition among students. They work harder to improve their knowledge and skills. Also, exams are an excellent tool to determine the efficacy of teaching methods because teachers get an opportunity to monitor and evaluate their teaching strategies according to their student’s progress.

On the other hand, there are certain drawbacks in so much that exams could have a poor predictive quality because they only judge a student’s ability under set conditions and limited time. Many times a student who is otherwise good, may not perform up to the mark under strict exam conditions. Also exams tend to encourage teaching to the test practice, that is to say, teaching a fixed curriculum focused on passing a specific exam.

Exam results are not the only way to validate a student’s worth. Some Nordic countries have abolished formal testing, especially at Primary level – and they still have the highest rates of success in education.

It has long been said that school days are the best days of one’s life. But is the era of such positivity well and truly over? Children are under ‘intolerable’ pressure to perform and according to Sir Anthony Seldon, head of Wellington College, exams put children under ‘vile, cruel pressure’. He adds that adults should not tell children that school days would be their happiest time, running the risk of leaving them demoralised and fearing the future. “Students are placed under ‘intolerable pressure’ thanks to exams and league tables,” Sir Anthony says.

Education should be much more than simply drilling children to take formal tests. Forming students for an open democratic society, for diversity, for employability, for creativity, for problem solving skills, cannot often be captured in formal tests.