Monday February 15 2010

PART 2: Do we need more exam stars?

By Charles Makanga Ssendegeya

In the first part of this commentary, it was argued that comparative analysis of school leaving examination results of different schools may not give an accurate picture whether schools are improving or whether students are better off for having gone to some ‘top schools’.

I will now consider the other key propositions on the usefulness of such systems.

Grade orientation
It may be argued that the race for good schools in Uganda may lead students to work harder and in fact improve student learning as examinations draw closer. However, high stakes examinations may also contribute to obstruction of learning and instead turn out what may be referred to as ‘grade-oriented’ students.

High-stakes testing brings many students to see grades as the ultimate and natural reward of schooling. Learning may be regarded as a natural reward of diligent study or conscious effort working on an experiment in a laboratory.

A good grade may become a reward which has no natural connection with the things a student does to earn it.

A proper reward of schooling, that is learning, should not follow the activity, as in the case of a good grade, but should be that very activity in consummation.

A student whose sole aim is to Distinction 1 in Mathematics may be able to identify commutation, distribution and association in algebra by cramming to produce correct answers in an exam. A learning-focused student, on the other hand, will grasp ideas embodied by these concepts in order to use them to solve equations beyond the exams.

The student whose orientation is learning may earn Credit 3, but still receive his reward which was given at every stage in his study. A grade-oriented student who scores Credit 3 will have lost on both counts. Standard high-stakes examinations ignite a hankering for grades as opposed to learning.

Learning-oriented students are excited by the opportunity to acquire new knowledge and they find personal enrichment through academic experiences. Grade-oriented students, on the other hand, base their actions on instructors’ evaluation procedures, and they work for grades. You will often hear students talking about ‘spotting’ questions for the examination, a practice that renders the unusually examined content irrelevant.

High-stakes examination scores are therefore good indicators of the likely participation of students from the ‘top schools’ in the professions such as law or medicine but not of students’ real world capabilities in medicine, engineering or law.

High scores in high stakes exams are a predictor of one’s ability to do well in standardised examinations. It is therefore not surprising that some of the stars of past years may not be as successful in life as they were in examinations.

Good results are a way for one to access opportunities which must be harnessed for one is to succeed in life.

Authentic assessment
Traditional testing may also be faulted on its ability to distract students from principles and concepts so as to focus on knowledge acquisition and regurgitation in testable aspects of subjects.

Educationist Grant Wiggins notes that paper-and-pencil tests are as problematic as judging driving skill from a written test.
Students need to appreciate that learning is an intentional, effortful construction of the human mind and that this involves the use of a knowledge-transforming strategy rather than the coping strategy of knowledge-reproduction.

My teaching experience shows that a huge portion of examination stars from secondary school when asked to research and write a coherent essay at university present very disappointing work. One of the most neglected skills in our schools is writing.

The challenges of many students in this area are compounded by a practice of reading only those books that contain answers to the questions in the examination.

All other sources of good reading that improve vocabulary and enable greater language proficiency are neglected.

The narrow focus on certain competencies as schools prepare students for examinations has curricular and pedagogical implications that I will examine in part 3 of this commentary.
Ssengegeya is a School Improvement Advisor.