Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Why exams are bad!

This morning, the title story on the Education section of BBC News reads 'Testing harms school science'.

No sh*t sherlock!

This particular little gem is something nearly everybody in science has been screaming to the heavens about for years. Don't get me wrong, I'm not pointing the finger at teachers or pupils (Christ, I was one of the latter not too long ago!), rather my wagging pinky is aimed straight at Whitehall and those suit clad tyrants who dictate just about everything in our lives by instating ever increasing levels of red tape.

Their obsession with tests and league tables and an ever changing syllabus is at the root of this problem, which extends far beyond Science's sacred shores. First year physics students at Bristol, along with most other UK Universities, are made to sit a basic maths test in their first week. This forms a guide to the Maths for Physicists modules that run throughout the first year in order to get everyone up to the required competence level. I quote the test in Bristol specifically, because this test has been running for some 30+ years now, and, while the average A-level grade of entrants has sky rocketed, the average score on this never changing test has plummeted. This is not a reflection of the quality of the students, or their aptitude for maths/science, rather it reflects the method of GCSE and A-level teaching.

The pressure on schools, teachers, and pupils to get straight A's and be at the top of their respective league table is bordering on the obscene. As a result of this Stalinistic approach to schooling kids, the basic understanding of the fundamental subjects (English as well as Maths and the Sciences) is being superseded in preference to exam grades. For me, the key point is that exam results are mistakenly being identified as the goal, whereas, surely, the primary outcome should be that kids leave school brimming with knowledge and skills that can be applied to the rest of their lives.

Unsurprisingly, with such a contentious subject, there are lots of webpages out these discussing this exact same topic. One of my personal favourites is this one on Y Safle, who collates figures garnered from the Exam Boards to back up his arguement. It's well worth a quick peek.

To finish on a bit lighter note...while on my morning browse of BBC News I also discovered something which would only ever happen in Australia:

'A woman on the north coast of New South Wales in Australia is being held hostage in her own home by a large pig'. That has to be the best opening sentence to a news item since the tiger was found a NY flat, and by some margin! I've got this image now of a very large pig, with Samuel L. Jackson side-burns and a John Travolta quiff, peaking out between blinds at an array of police cars whilst clutching a sawn-off shotgun, cigarette hanging limply from his chops.

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