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The subject of whether or not exam results are an accurate measure of achievement is one that has found itself in the headlines quite frequently over the past couple of years.

There are many voices on either side of the debate – all seemingly promoting logical yet diametrically opposing views. So, do exam results matter and are they an indicator of ability?

‘Intelligence Cannot be Defined by Exams’

This quote comes from The Telegraph and is included in an article by Headmaster Peter Tait. He states that many people who are highly intelligent are, in fact, poor thinkers. On the other hand, many people who are of average intelligence are skilled thinkers.

Every individual has a mind that works differently, and each person will see and complete exams in a different way.

The way in which our education and exam system works is to distinguish which students have aptitudes for particular subjects and support their learning whilst also ensuring that the less capable students are not left behind. 

Continual monitoring, regular summative and formative assessment, and individualised learning pathways are some of the ways in which ability and achievement can be tracked and managed.

Exam results, whether SATs, end-of-year exams, GCSEs or A-levels, present a snapshot of a student’s abilities in a testing environment.

By its very nature, an exam result can only demonstrate how successful a student has been in learning the curriculum and at coping with the pressure of the exam.

Creative thinkers can perform poorly in a time-limited, structured and stressful exam situation, and this shows the possible limitations of trying to judge ability by test results alone.

Slipping Through the Net

Intelligent students who perform poorly in exams can be failed by any school system that has an over-reliance on exam results as a measure of ability and achievement.

Sometimes poor exam performance is due to students not engaging with their curriculum. Learning difficulties or mental health conditions (like anxiety) that hinder their ability to complete examinations can also have an adverse effect on grades. Even with excellent SEND support.

Every year, students are left behind because of poor exam results. For many of these children and young adults, they learn to see themselves as having failed – rather than realising that they just learn in a different way.

There are a few of us whose minds turn to putty under pressure. Exams left me feeling worthless and lacking in confidence. The worse I did in each test, the more pressure I felt to deliver results that never came. When I failed half my A-levels, and was rejected by my university choices, I spiralled into a depression.

Does the focus on exam results promote shallow thinking?

The basis of exams is regurgitation of the facts that have been learned over the course of the academic year. Students are expected to remember all they have been taught, revise it, and then answer exam questions with what has been previously learned and revised. This is what we mean by shallow thinking.

Testing students in exam conditions rarely encourages them to think creatively, or to apply their own knowledge to the answers of the questions they are asked. In fact, in some exams, you can be penalised for doing so.

Exams only measure a small number of attributes – critical thinking and creativity are sometimes not needed to achieve good grades. In part, this is because exam results are used as a key indicator of school performance and teachers are often themselves assessed on their students’ grades.

Teaching to pass the exam rather than teaching the subject itself can therefore be a consequence of using grades as a measure of performance at teacher and whole school level.

Exam results are not always an accurate measure of achievement. Exams themselves only take a number of factors into account, and sometimes intelligent students who cannot cope with the pressures of exams fail to achieve their full potential after getting poor grades.

When used in conjunction with progress tracking, regular assessment and similar long-term measures, exam results can be an indicator of ability and achievement. On their own, grades can only show part of the student’s abilities.