Do exams do more harm than good?

Students working in a classroom

Love them or loath them, and yes, some people really do love them, exams are part and parcel of school life. But are they a true guide to measuring student learning?


The main gripe amongst teachers is being required to ‘teach to the test’. Drill students to answer exam questions through memory and repetition and it’s ‘job done’.

The good news is that there is a proven alternative way to approaching exams in the International Baccalaureate (IB). Yes, at Diploma level (16-18 year olds) 80% of learning is still assessed by exams, however, and importantly, these are to demonstrate application rather than proof of knowledge. IB Diploma Proramme (IBDP) students enter the exam room knowing they will have to think and work at their responses rather than repeat and reproduce a stock answer.

The IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) for students aged 11-16, is frequently cited as an attractive alternative to GCSEs by students, education professionals and employers alike, for focussing on equipping students with skills for the future, rather than reams of facts. 


So how does that work?

The MYP is committed to developing students who are inquirers, knowledgeable, thinkers, communicators, principled, open-minded, caring, risk-takers, balanced and reflective. Quite a tall order, yet the MYP is recognised internationally as a highly rigorous academic qualification which challenges students to excel in their studies and enhances personal growth.

The five-year MYP ensures breadth and depth of understanding with the teaching of eight subjects: language acquisition, language and literature, individuals and societies, sciences, mathematics, arts, physical and health education and design.

In years 4 and 5, students also have the option to take courses from six of the eight subject groups, providing even greater flexibility.

As an international system, MYP assessment standards have to be consistent around the world and so rise above national education political maneuvering and constraints. Its assessment model is carried out by the teachers with the IB Organisation reviewing and providing feedback for individual school’s internal assessments, so ensuring these consistent global standards are maintained.


Developing skills that matter

At the latter end of MYP studies, the MYP Personal Project is an important and major part of an individual student’s assessment. It is an individually completed exercise requiring considerable research and application of skills showcasing the students’ learning and creativity. This in turn helps develop important life skills such as decision-making, self-directed inquiry and creativity, all of which help to prepare students for further study and the workplace.

At ACS, the 2017 projects included a short film exploring issues related to the role of technology in modern society; a symbolic painting showing how the war in Syria affected the lives of its citizens; and the creation of a wig for donation to the charity, ‘Little Princess Trust’, which required the development of new skills such as knotting and weaving. A student even displayed electronic waste in the form of a city, and investigated the best methods of recycling electronic waste to achieve environmental sustainability.

For younger students aged 13-14, the MYP requires completion of a community project, providing opportunities for collaboration (team work) and development of citizenship skills.

Giving students an opportunity to apply their learning practically is an important part of the MYP, and each year students aged 14 take part in a Work Experience Week where they join local businesses and discover more about the workplace.

To expand students’ horizons further outside of the classroom, we strongly encourage our students to work with international development, local community and environment projects. ACS Egham, for example, works in partnership with Nepalese school communities, and each year, students travel to Nepal to undertake community assignments. Last year, ACS Egham's Project Nepal won the Independent Schools Association Outstanding Contribution for International Understanding Award.

Of course some parents do worry about fewer exams, fearing that their child will be disadvantaged without a certificate to wave in front of prospective future universities admissions personnel and employers.

The truth could not be more different. In the UK young people are required to stay at school until 18, and many go on to study at university and beyond so they will have the requisite exam certificates. So having a list of exam successes at 16 actually makes no difference at all in this respect. For most university Admissions, the IB MYP qualification will actually stand the student in better stead than a list of GCSE grades.


The advantage of an international education

The MYP is a gateway to the IB Diploma Programme (DP) or Career-related Programme (CP). UK university admissions officers cite the IBDP method as the best preparation for university, compared to other post-16 qualifications. IB students also have a reputation for being able to work independently having already learnt how to think for themselves and how to approach new learning challenges, before they reach higher education level.

The graphs below, displaying data from the 2017 University Admissions Officers Report commissioned by ACS, shows how admissions officers compare the IBDP to A Levels.


Are Exams Holding Children Back Image (Graph)
Figure 1. Data from the 2016 University Officers Admissions Report


Despite a general focus on examinations it is important to remember they are not necessarily a good indicator of future success. Developing a well-rounded individual, with a global mindset and lifelong thurst for learning is perhaps even more important.


Further reading:

A teacher's perspective on abandoning primary school testing