Exam conspiracies

June 7, 1996

There is nothing like a test to concentrate the mind, but what if you never fail? Alex Millmow looks at Australian policy

Examinations. The very word arouses fear and rank uncertainty. The fear is for the intense mental ordeal ahead, the uncertainty for a paper that delights in exposing what one does not know.

Most of us can still entertain memories of mental freezes, writer's cramp, sweaty palms, dry mouths, crib sheets, racing clocks and glares at swots writing like blazes. Few ever admit to enjoying this rite of passage. Even the great and mighty have emerged shell-shocked, worse for the experience. Keynes, for instance, sat the civil service exams but apparently did badly on the economic questions. He later observed that his examiners obviously knew less of the subject than he did.

A chap called Niemeyer, whom Australians will recall from 1930 as the apostle of austerity, beat him and got the only job going that year at the Treasury. Down under, the Australian public service still conducts competitive selection tests for its clerical assistants - but not for graduates.

Much maligned, seen as the plaything of killjoys, puritans and intellectual bullies, competitive exams remain the only really tried and tested form of assessment of a student's knowledge. Yet exams are now becoming passe. While they still fall at the end of the curriculum they are now largely ceremony rather than substance.

Educationists have slowly whittled down the standing and credibility of exams and encouraged their substitution with all manner of continuous assessment. Exams, they argue, are a poor indicator of a student's true ability, too arbitrary, cruel in deciding a student's fate.

However much past generations of students detested exams, they were surely tested by fire. To paraphrase Dr Johnson, when you knew that you were to be put to the test in two weeks time it concentrated the mind wonderfully. In those days people failed - and failed categorically.

Contrast this with, for example, the Australian state of Victoria where last year's Year 12 or university entrance exam results showed a 93 per cent pass rate. Those who did fail only did so because they had not submitted all their assignments throughout the year. In other words everyone who completed the work passed. The chief examiner for the VCE went on to declare that such absurdly high pass rates were set to continue.

Of course, some pass more than others, for the Year 12 grades serve as the ticket of entry into university. Australian students however only get their Tertiary Entrance Rank (TER) score by the most complex statistical machinations. In this day and age the whole process lacks transparency. The related issue of whether TER scores actually correlate to subsequent performance at university is a subject of senior common-room discussion.

In my day academic progression, or lack of it, was so simple - essentially a matter of how many As, or Bs, or in my case, Cs and Ds, one amassed in sitting competitive three hour exams. We more or less knew where we stood - whether we were going to university or not - on the day of the results. Many knew their fate minutes into the exam ordeal itself.

The fact that no one other than an imbecile can actually fail Year 12 at Australian level raises problems down the line. Because school students have never actually been allowed to fathom the humbling experience of failure that exams inflict, they can find the going at university more testing, literally and figuratively.

Yet this is the very generation that will have to steel itself in an ultra-competitive, unforgiving labour market that lies just outside the campus gates. Not only do Australian academics have a festering resentment about the quality of students being passed on to them from school but they are also coming under pressure themselves to reduce the examination weighting in student assessment.

Fail-safe exams are taking hold in universities too. Lecturers are facing democratic pressure, as it were, from students conditioned to easier climes to lower the more testing parts of subject assessment. Lecturers who try resisting this pressure and upholding standards find students voting with their feet.

Another more insidious force conspiring against exams as the main mode of assessment at university is unfavourable student reaction. Lecturers cannot insist on too much rigour, too high a fail rate, lest their teaching prowess be called into question or, even worse, their student evaluations come back distinctly condemning of the instructor. Apart from the dreaded bind of politically correct behaviour - that exams are palpably unfair, a historic relic, etc. - another PC scourge, though more prosaic, beckons - personal computers. They have become so prevalent that student's handwriting has suffered, making deciphering their scripts as difficult as reading the Rosetta Stone.

However well intentioned the continuous assessment approach is, there is no telling nor lasting substitute for exams in the curriculum. They remain a necessary evil.

Alex Millmow is an exam-setting lecturer in economics at Charles Sturt University, Australia.

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