10 Basic Principles of Our School System, Part 2: Class Tests, Tests and Exams

  1. homework
  2. class tests, tests and exams
  3. grades
  4. schoolbooks
  5. the curriculum
  6. 45/90-minute lessons
  7. class size
  8. age-based classes
  9. subjects
  10. teacher focus

Teachers always have an ace up their sleeves, the ultimate threat to make students shut up and pay attention. “You know we write a class test soon, so maybe you should listen, if you don’t want to fail!” It often works, even the worst students at least pretend to listen now because they know they ought to. Sometimes “good” students remind others of the impending class tests, to get them to their senses, unable to understand how you can’t take it more seriously. The more effective tactic is to just threaten with a surprise test to keep everyone in check. If that makes teaching sound like training dogs not to bite, then that’s what some teachers make it sound like. And class tests and tests, written examinations in general, are the standard methods of authority in school, accepted and expected.

What are we told why tests are necessary? Why do we come to accept this exam system despite the enormous pressure it puts on everyone and the questionable effectiveness of it (more on that below)? It’s actually a very simple explanation we are offered, based on the underlying principle of our school system: tests check if the students learned and understood the subject matter of the previous lessons. The teacher teaches a certain topic and then examines whether the students succeeded in comprehending everything. Grades now function as a scale for where each student is standing (but more on grades in a future episode). Tests serve as a conclusion, a clear finishing point, marking the end and beginning of each sequence, giving the whole year a clear structure as everyone moves from class test to class test.

Obviously there are some problems with this system. First, its basic assumptions are flawed. Tests do often not really check if students understood the subject matter, but check if they are able to solve certain tasks in a short time that sometimes are connected to the issues, but sometimes aren’t. More importantly, they do not guarantee that the subject matter is remembered after the test, which is the biggest problem I have with tests. They are selective examinations, which only check if students prepared for that single moment of writing them. That doesn’t prove or show anything except for a very narrow skill of performing under time pressure and being good at guessing which parts of the topics could come up.

This is another thing of tests, this element of surprise. On the one hand, the exams are supposed to show what students now, but then so much hinges on not telling them what exactly they are asked. The point here of course is that they prepare for everything, every possible scenario, but what good does that do? Some teachers make a big deal of not telling their students anything, forcing them to study more than they would ever need. No matter what they might say, this is just a show of force, of enjoying power. The consequences are even more pressure for students and the temptation of cheating.

Another problem I have is that we put so much importance on class tests that they dominate everything. But if what the students learn in school is meant to be important for life, why is it the most important thing to succeed in exam situations that resemble not many situations in their future lives, except other exam situations.

But even more harmful is the fact that focusing on exams undermines any notion that the subject matter could be interesting to the students. Even if they are interested in something, their motivation to understand and learn anything always has to be to succeed in the tests and not getting the most out of it for themselves. That is why using tests as a threat is so destructive and disheartening. Instead of convincing students why some things are interesting or relevant (more on that in the curriculum episode), we force them to learn whatever we give them, no matter if they care or not. Most of that oppressive dynamic comes from having class tests as the center of our lesson plan.

I detest this system of examinations more and more with each year as a teacher. The solutions that work for me are twofold. One I explained at great length in Learning, Not Studying, but I summarize quickly. For almost every class test, I tell my students not to study because they are never (except for occasional vocabulary in lower classes) asked to simply repeat knowledge and facts. My focus in class tests completely relies on understanding and expressing your opinion. Those are the two skills I focus on most in all my lessons, the ability to question and understand how certain systems or people work and to reflect upon our own position towards them. This doesn’t solve the problem of exams in itself, as they still have to work under pressure and I have to grade them. But it takes away the workload of studying and part of the surprise factor.

Another solution I try to use as much possible is to time the exams in a way, that there are long stretches of “free time”, with no exams at the end, that allow for a more experimental and student-oriented approach. Right now, for example, I have to 8th grade classes where I wrote all the class tests already, meaning I have about 2,5 months of time in which the class can have a major say in deciding how we will spend that time. It will be an experiment and it can fail (mostly due to students not being used to make their own decisions and always relying on being told what to do), but I’m hopeful that learning will be much more effective without the pressure of class tests.

What do you think?