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Out of the box: Are exams a form of child abuse?


Exams can be intrinsically unfair and do not allow many young people to flourish

I have a brother and we both had to sit our 0 Level exams in our mid-teens. Bernard slept badly the nights before the exams, he was sweating as he entered the examination hall and his writing hand was hard for him to control. He only passed one of his exams, English language.

Facing a test or examination, I felt ready and aggressively happy: I’d show ‘em! Mostly, my confident state of body and mind got me the high marks I yearned for (Yeah, you may well dislike this brat…).

Our father said that of the two of us Bernard was the more intelligent one. Pa had coached us both and I feel he was right. Yet the British state exams opened my way to Oxbridge and levered Bernard into completely other paths. Deep inside me I know those exams failed to get our just measure in any of the subjects we took.

British EFL exam boards have sometimes called in the US testing experts Lyle Bachmann and Adrian Palmer as consultants. Their magnum opus, Language Testing in Practice, runs to nearly 400 pages of which only eleven are devoted to the situation and psychology of the test taker. Do they even deal with inevitable biological problems of the test takers? It is clear that a quarter of female test takers will be menstruating on any given exam day. It is also known that periods can be painful. Lyle and Bachman and the rest of the testing community show no sign of caring that these people, a stable minority of the cohort, are automatically disadvantaged. The experts mumble eloquently on about the ‘fairness’ of the exam questions.

In many students’ exam preparation the focus is on a ‘mistakes avoidance’ state of mind. Does it make sense to hobble a horse before he is meant to show off his paces? My yucky 14-year-old arrogant state of mind would serve most candidates better in the test situation.

It is well known that there is a surge in young people ringing helplines like Childline and Samaritans at exam time in the early summer. The Professional Association of Teachers once even asked:

‘Are exams a form of child abuse?’ Maybe they are and should be replaced by continuous assessment.

Mario Rinvolucri is a Pilgrims associate and former-editor of Humanising Language Teaching. He is co-author of The Confidence Book: building trust in the language classroom, with Paul Davis.