Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Exam Problems - Known For 100 Years.

Recent events have made many in the UK ask profound questions about the nature of our examining system. At the same time, I asked to provide clearer references for a book to which I have contributed a chapter, and looked up some material on Max Weber. I had read this about a year ago, refreshing my university memory, but that memory had slid away once more. My re-reading made me realise that the structure and nature of Britain's exams give rise to the risk of poor outcomes, and we've known this since Weber was writing, about 100 years ago.

John Keane's book Public Life and Late Capitalism refers (in chapter 2) to four elements of Weber's theory: first, bureaucracy is a structure in which actions are precisely executed by an objective matrix of power,  which emanates from the top. Trust in decisions made lower down is completely absent; all activity is structured. Second, tasks are rigidly divided, regulated (in writing), and compartmentalised. Third, activity is dehumanised, and there is no regard for particular people or individuals. Fourth, such calculating, mechanised organisation ensures its own 'relentless advance'.

At the same time as recoiling in horror from this concept of 'efficiency', the vision it conjured up was entirely redolent of my own experience of marking public exams, which I am happy to say is more than a decade out of date. I do, however, still have interaction with exam boards, and I continue to recognise the picture of the post-industrial revolution factory organisation brought to examining which reduces participants to cogs in a giant machine, which recognises no one as an individual, and ploughs on through complex situations with relentless and destructive simplicity.

Furthermore, the criticisms recently advanced by the HMC, ASCL (unions of UK headteachers) and others following the GCSE debacle seem to be pointing towards the exam boards behaving in a Weberian manner.

The move to point by point mark schemes which compel all students to adopt the same methodology and logical pace as the examiner (and penalises heavily the brilliant but impatient pupil who do not want to define terms as they go along) will be familiar to many. The rigidity of process, the purity of which trumps the justice of any injured party in an appeal, are recognisable to headteachers. But what can we do about it?

I suggest that, if the lessons of a comparison of our exam system to Weberian bureaucracy can be learned, it means four things:
1. Exam boards need to be liberated to set exams which do not necessarily produce answers so mechanical that 'tick box'marking can assess them. Such liberation will also allow able candidates to be stretched, especially at A level.
2. Examiners must be paid enough to recruit appropriately expert examiners, who can be trusted to give marks on the basis of their appreciation of the whole of a candidate's answer.
3. Young people should take fewer exams. The unwieldy and ravenously data hungry demand of the bureaucratic exam board solution will always say that it needs a little more data for exams to be really reliable, but the truth is that the country is drowning under exam scripts in at least two months of every year.
4. Exam boards cannot be profit making companies. If they are, they will continue to seek out the most efficient mechanisms for attributing marks to exams - not the most accurate, nor the most meaningful. Perhaps exam boards should be nationalised, under a supervisory board of teachers, universities and employers' associations.

Would these three things make exams error-free? No, but they might make the system a bit less monolithic, a bit less unnavigable, and a bit more accountable.

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