At breakfast this morning, I heard an alarming report on theBBCabout falling standards in science in UK schools. The Royal Society of Chemistry says that the obsession with exam scores means that even the brightest pupils are being “taught the test”rather than how tosolve problems, think critically or apply mathematics in science. The RSC spokesman argued that exams now mainly reward students for regurgitating facts instead of for using their imagination to think a problem through in stages. A similar lament is heard from universities who now spend a fortune on remedial maths and science courses for pupils, and from businesses who are snowed under with graduates who boast luminous exam scores but lack basic science skills. And the problem is not confined to science. Imposing a rigid curriculum and then making exam scores the only barometer of academic success narrows horizons in the humanities, too.One couple I know have been asked by their seventeen-year-old son not to talk to him about any literature, history, or art that is not on the syllabus at his school in London. He’s worried it will get in the way for his exams, says his father. Part of me admires his focus, but it’s also pretty depressing that education has become so tunnel-vision.It’s not all bad news. Today’s students are very good at finding and manipulating information, and at analyzing visual data, but other skills seem to have fallen by the wayside.University professors complain that students now balk at reading whole books, preferring much shorter excerpts and articles. They also seem impatient with ambiguity, demanding instant answers that are black and white. The reasons for this are complex, but the obsession with test scores plays a role.A century and a half ago, England tried paying teachers according to how well their pupils answered questions asked by visiting inspectors. Schools, in response, put more energy into rote learning and began encouraging weaker pupils to play hooky on inspection days. Today, with so much kudos and cash riding on test scores, educators around the world have been caught doing the same or worse. A fourth-grade teacher in Spokane, Washington, recently gave her pupils answers to the mathematics portion of a state exam in advance and allowed some to swap answers during the test itself. Investigators reported that, in the section where students were asked to show their work, one had written, My techre [sic] told me. In England, the headmaster of a primary school was caught helping pupils cheat on science and math SATs. Not long ago, Japan was rocked by the revelation that hundreds of its schools allowed pupils to skip entire courses to allot more time to studying for the country’s notoriously competitive university entrance exams.
And let’s not forget the basic drawback of exams: the one thing they measure better than anything else is how good a child is at taking exams. Is that really what we need in the New Economy? In the future, the biggest rewards will go not to the yes-men who know how to serve up an oven-ready answer but to the creatives, the nimble-minded innovators who can think across disciplines, delve into a problem for the sheer hell of it, and relish the challenge of learning throughout their lives. These are the people who will come up with the next Google, invent an alternative fuel, or devise a plan to slay poverty in Africa. The problem is that relentless pressure, scrutiny and measuring can make children less creative: rather than take chances or push the boundaries, they play safe, opting for the answer that earns the gold star.
Where do we go from here? The UK government says there is nothing to worry about because science test scores have risen, which seems to misses the point entirely. Part of the problem here is that exam scores have become an end in themselves. But change is coming, even from those most resistant to it. A few weeks ago the UK government abolished all SATs (national standardized exams) for 14-year-olds.