Exams important part of education process

Rachel Davies ,  Contributor ,  Jakarta   |  Sun, 11/09/2008 10:59 AM  |  Supplement

It is fair enough to state that none of us are really ever likely to like examinations. Examination times can be traumatic times for both students and their teachers. But just because nobody really enjoys them, we should not disregard them as a legitimate and necessary part of the education process.

Indonesia’s national school examinations have, consistently, received very bad press over past months and years. The litany of complaints against them has mounted up and nobody can really be surprised by this, it is practically an annual event that could maybe even sadly be called something of a “tradition”.

But woven into this complaining are aspects of concern that really should not be used to question and challenge the overall concept and purpose of examinations. People have complained that the examination system is invalid because of acts of abuse that are nothing short of heinous.

Teachers reported as stealing examination material and then disseminating it to their students, students being permitted to collaborate on their examination answers during the exam times and a corrupt process of selling answer keys to exams have all been cited as goings on during recent rounds of national school exams.

All of these things are very disturbing and utterly unacceptable in the context of running fair, balanced and accurate assessments of students through exams. But make no mistake, it is perfectly possible to achieve, through examinations, fair, balanced and accurate assessments of students’ abilities.

Furthermore it can be stated and, I believe, should be stated that examinations are an important part of the education process. They are, or should be, a significant culminating and summarizing factor to anyone’s education. Simply complaining about them and berating anyone that supports them is neither fair nor useful. It has become the “in thing’, the trendy and acceptable thing to promote the “process” of education and downplay the “product’, but this is largely nonsensical. If there was not some product in mind, an end result or outcome, then what would the purpose of education be? Equally nonsensical is the way that people will openly talk about their desired and/or expected product of education and then proceed to claim that it is the process that matters more.

The promises that are made that your child will become “a leader”, “a caring person”, “a success story”, “a critical thinker”, “life long learner”, all suggest that a particular outcome is both expected and desired. But then people will insist that it is “the learning process” that is focused on.

The two have to go hand-in-hand and what is more it is logical that the process helps to achieve the product, and a fundamental way in which the process and the product is tested is via examinations. How do you determine whether there has been an outcome?

People will claim that a one-off, one size fits all, standardized exam is not fair to students. Students will have different learning styles and respond differently to the exam situation. They may get nervous and make mistakes that they usually would not. They may not revise the right subjects and so fail due to poor preparation. All kinds of excuses are made.

All kinds of excuses will not, however, do. A summation of students’ abilities and their success in the subjects they have attended to and the school that they have attended is needed. It can reasonably be asked where this summation is going to come from, if not significantly from final examinations.

Pleadings, or excuses, for ongoing assessment are all well and good, but such assessment has to be carefully guarded and monitored too. One of the greatest complaints and arguments cited against the national exams in Indonesian schools is the fact that they have been subject to cheating.

It has to be a major bone of contention that so much of the blame for the breakdown in the national examination system through cheating has been squarely placed on the shoulders of teachers. This suggests that it may not be the system that is at fault but is in fact those that are entrusted to manage it.

It therefore seems wrong to simply lay the blame at the feet of the government and say “see what a mess you have made”. Can it really be said that a testing authority/organization should take the blame, if people choose to effectively negate their system of testing by simply teaching the test?

Take the example of the Test of English as a Foreign Language (more commonly known by its initials TOEFL). This is an examination of learners’ of English abilities to use the English language that is developed and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and that is respected; but can ETS be blamed for the fact that so many courses are provided simply to pass the test?

There are numerous courses that are designed around test taking skills alone. As a result students can be met that are adept at and knowledgeable in taking tests but actually lack skills that go beyond the parameters of the test materials. This is a pattern that may be witnessed in the Indonesian national schools exams too.

These, what we might call, idiosyncrasies of the ways in which people approach testing and examinations should not distract us or detract from the goal of providing a meaningful and valid test. Any test is, ultimately, a tool for measuring performance, it is how we prepare that tool and subsequently use it that really matters.

If that tool is found to be less useful or, as has been suggested, maintains a level of mediocrity or fails to encourage betterment, we must be concerned. That concern, though, does not mean that we should necessarily disregard the tool. The tool simply and more carefully should be improved.

The denigrators of examinations and promoters of alternative methods of assessment may not like it but examinations are still a vital part of how we find out about both students and the schools that they have been attending. Examinations can also be great motivators and, of course, they provide great challenges to students. As challenges and motivators examinations, well prepared, administered and analyzed, provide essential feedback that cannot be neglected.

The writer is an education consultant in Sydney, Australia.