Who is getting examined here?

Its that time of year – for external examinations I mean. And reports are coming in from various quarters about the difficulty of the Level 1 Maths examinations. This one attracted my attention then sent it (my interest) through the roof when I read that it was written by someone with a Doctorate and who directs “professional learning and development at the University of Auckland”. She says “Why is my 14-year-old sitting exams?”

[…] In early November my 14 year-old sat three exams in English, mathematics and science to conclude her year 10 year. She still has four more weeks at school and I suspect she will be lying around sunbathing for most of it. According to her, the maths exam was 12 pages long.

In my working life, I have never needed to sit in a silent room for three hours and regurgitate in written form information I have memorised. I can’t understand why as evolved humans we still make our kids do this. Is it some kind of ritualistic torture that we insist on as adults because we had to go through it ourselves? […]

NCEA Level 1 is usually taken in Year 11. Is this 14-year-old girl doing Level 1 Maths? Appears so .. alongside others aged 16 years.


The good Dr views 3-hour exams as a time to regurgitate memorised work. She can speak for herself, and perhaps, for her own classes, but not, I feel, for the Maths examiners. For example – the Maths paper 91028 – “Investigate relationships between tables, equations and graphs” assesses for these criteria – and not a hint of rote learning:


The questions kick off using a hypothetical rental car company hire charges. You can check out the whole paper here. She goes on…

[…] When can we stop this madness and assess students in a way that reflects the real world of work and the contexts in which they will realistically live their lives? […]

Oh dear, she hasn’t seen the examination paper which is trying to do just that. The other Maths paper I looked at was 91030 “Apply geometric reasoning in solving problems”. Before any questions, the paper illustrates “real-world” geometry with a picture titled “Mosaics and tessellations” and two sentences describing what they are. The questions are, of course, assessing the criteria but the connection of the geometry problems being solved has been made with reality. I can hear echoes of previous complaints on the theme, ” but what they are learning in maths is never going to be used in the real world.” Now I can imagine students weeping. ” But we never covered tessellations in geometry!”. The good Dr will only contribute to such frustrations if she insists that exams are where you regurgitate memorised information. If in fact, she welcomes testing of real-world problem-solving then she needs to say so and perhaps compliment the Maths examiners. She didn’t.



The good Dr has more complaints:

[…] We clearly need to rethink this whole exam thing. It is a construct of the 19th century used to rank young people for drafting them into various careers or knowledge institutions. […]

[…] why would we want to stop students accessing knowledge from different sources in order to analyse and synthesise information to demonstrate their understanding of the topic or idea required by the question. […]

Last first, open book tests are not unknown but different sources? The Internet? Test-setters know that if someone knows their stuff they will plough through an open-book test much faster. To rely on opening a book just wastes time and students who do this often don’t finish. But the Internet??

Be advised that NZQA is about to try online exams. Our good Dr reports glowingly on Karen Poutasi’s plans to offer online examination options by 2020. You can read about it and hear the “excellent interview on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon” here:

I am sceptical about this but I am also aware that online assessment is not new. The implications can be considered elsewhere.

So what about the “construct of the 19th century” – paper-based examinations at year’s end?

1. Controlled conditions (release of questions, exam controlled by non-school personnel, etc)

2. Writing in your own hand authenticates your answers (yes, every written test is also a test of handwriting, just as an online test may examine touch-typing skills or mouse mastery)

3. Fits with end-of-school-year, have holiday while marking, moderating, scaling, publishing goes on in time for the new year’s educational choices.

4. Respected by employers. Is that not worth something to job applicants? Well tested, robust, no strong case yet for fixing.

What concerns me about the news articles in Stuff is the negativeness surrounding end-of-year examinations. It is not helped when a senior educator joins in disparaging them after benefiting from them to start her career.




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