Why is my 14-year-old sitting exams?

22 November 2017
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In early November my 14 year-old sat three exams in English, mathematics and science to conclude her year 10 year. She still has four more weeks at school and I suspect she will be lying around sunbathing for most of it. According to her, the maths exam was 12 pages long.

In my working life, I have never needed to sit in a silent room for three hours and regurgitate in written form information I have memorised. I can't understand why as evolved humans we still make our kids do this. Is it some kind of ritualistic torture that we insist on as adults because we had to go through it ourselves?

I must admit I do want my GP and airline pilot to have a few key facts in their heads but even they need to be regularly updating their knowledge. I have no problem with professionals doing a quick 'Google' if it is going to lead to a better diagnosis or solution to a problem.

Recently Dr Karen Poutasi (chief executive of the NZ Qualifications Authority) gave an excellent interview on Radio NZ's Nine to Noon discussing the way her agency is trialling online exams for our teenagers. There was discussion about the challenges of providing a digital cloud-based environment for students to write their responses to questions and not simultaneously surf the internet for "the answers".

The critical point that she raised in the interview was a question about why would we want to stop students accessing knowledge from different sources in order to analyse and synthesise information to demonstrate their understanding of the topic or idea required by the question.

We clearly need to rethink this whole exam thing. It is a construct of the 19th century used to rank young people for drafting them into various careers or knowledge institutions.

It is a good idea to know the road code and your times tables but we don't need to remember a lot of knowledge in great detail anymore. Most workplaces involve lots of reading, writing and mathematics mixed in with key competencies such as managing oneself, oral language skills and learning to work with others.

Creativity and problem solving with research and inquiry will take our young people a long way but these things can't be tested in a three-hour exam.

There will be 1000s of hours being used by our young, talented New Zealanders this month filling in exam papers for our tired and overworked teachers to mark.

Many of our students will get results that they, their teachers and their parents would have already predicted because they have completed rigorous assessments throughout the year. They will then wait until mid-January to get their results which for the year 11 and 12s will make little difference to their lives as it won't be their exit qualification from school.

When can we stop this madness and assess students in a way that reflects the real world of work and the contexts in which they will realistically live their lives?


Dr Camilla Highfield is director of Professional Learning and Development at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Education and Social Work. Her research interests are in schooling improvement, leadership and within-school variation.

Used with permission from StuffWhy is my 14-year-old sitting exams? published on Wednesday 22 November 2017.