Data overload: what is the point of exams?

Sunday 19 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Frobisher Auditorium 2, Barbican School Fights

School exams have often been criticised. For example, it is argued that the peculiar conditions of the exam provide a rather artificial snapshot of a pupil’s performance. Some students don’t cope well with the pressure and underperform compared to their real capabilities. Nonetheless, there have always been many good reasons to argue for their efficacy as a way of measuring progress and attainment. However, in the current context of what some see as an obsessive pre-occupation with capturing and analysing data from exams, is it time to reconsider their usefulness?

Today it seems that every aspect of education must be quantified, measured and audited as the professional judgement and autonomy of the teacher is subordinated to the data. Where once exams and data were seen as an aid to assessing student progress in terms of the acquisition of subject knowledge and intellectual development, critics argue that this traditional educational relationship has been reversed by a ‘data revolution’. Growing numbers of teachers complain about a tick-box culture of predicted and target grades where some pupils seem to know more about their target grade than the actual subject.

Does the increased emphasis on data and targets allow for more accountability or does it simply encourage more and more teachers to ‘teach to the test’ in order not to fall foul of what the data expects? Is an overemphasis on data and exam performance narrowing the educational and intellectual experience of young people and moving schools further away from what was once their core mission - the transmission of a body of knowledge? Is it time to scrap exams in order to get back to some real education? Or do teachers need to stop complaining and accept that it is about time they were held to account via the data?

Jack Marwood
primary school teacher; education writer, Icing on the Cake blog

Fiona Millar
columnist, Guardian, co-founder, Local Schools Network

Robert Peal
history teacher, West London Free School, and education research fellow, Civitas

Kevin Rooney
politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?

Produced by
Dr Shirley Lawes researcher; consultant and university teacher, specialising in teacher education and modern foreign languages; Chevalier dans l’ordre des Palmes Académiques
Kevin Rooney politics teacher and head of social science, Queen's School, Bushey; co-author, Who's Afraid Of The Easter Rising?
Recommended readings
This is why I am among the thousands leaving teaching this month

Excessive accountability, an unhealthy level of suspicion and an obsession with statistics has made this an impossible career path

Chris Sloggett, Independent, 10 July 2014

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