Saturday, November 12, 2011

Exams aren't what they used to be

This kind of stuff -- students buying pre-written essays to memorise and then regurgitate (and I use the verb advisedly) in their HSC exams -- has made me reflect on the olden days of last century, when I wor a lass, and my cohort had to sit a total of five, count 'em, five lots of public exams within three years.

In Intermediate (the year we all turned fifteen, the equivalent of Year Ten) we sat the exams for Commonwealth Scholarships for the last two years of school -- these were essentially IQ and general-knowledge tests, not things you could prepare for in any way apart from staying healthy and getting enough sleep -- and only a few months later we sat three-hour exams in each of eight subjects. The following year, Leaving (Year 11), we sat another set of three-hour exams in six subjects. And the year after that, we sat for another round of Commonwealth Scholarships, this time to university, plus more three-hour exams in five Matric (Year 12 / HSC) subjects, except for the exceptionally clever kids who did six because they could.

That's 60 hours of competitive public examinations over three years, in an era when there was no continuous assessment: your result for the year depended entirely on how you scored in the exams. And if you didn't pass a sufficient number of them, then that was it: you repeated the year or you left school.

Nobody cheated, perhaps partly because they were not the sorts of exams for which cheating of this kind would have been possible.

Then, of course, there were the university exams, by which time you could score at least part of your result through essays handed in during the year. Not much, though.  And if in later years as an academic I ever got sick of my Honours students complaining about how hard they had to work, all I had to do to make them stop was tell them about the assessment for my own Honours year: two 12,000 word theses, plus four three-hour exams in a total of six different subjects, two of them (Practical Criticism and Shakespeare) compulsory. Like many of my mates in that year, I was by then living away from home and worked all the way through the exams, in my case washing dishes in a Greek restaurant. I was, however, alone in the charming experience of going to court about my no-contest divorce about halfway through the exams.

What's more, I walked five miles to school and university barefoot in the snow. And I think you should all get off my lawn.


persiflage said...

And more's the pity, in my view. It seems cheating has become intellectually respectable. There should be a lot more walking five miles in the snow, even if we have to import the snow.
And although we had to write all these excruciatingly difficult essays, they did not actually count towards our results.
I remember being plunged into Puritanism and Liberty in my first year. I had no idea what it was all about. God, how I floundered.
Those were the days. And with no Internet to help people cheat. How we suffered.

francine said...

*sound of rocking chair as it creaks back and forward on the verandah* "And pull your pants up, young man!"

Ampersand Duck said...

and dognabit, where're my teeth?!!

paul walter said...

Well, it was a funny system, back then. With matric, you had it whittled back to five subjects, from six in earlier.
Invariably (at least in '71) that meant you took two maths, physics, chem and English, if you wanted to study at uni or the workers consolation, teachers college.
Too bad if your head wasn't around maths. Our first maths teacher, back at the dustbowl that was brand new Elizabeth West High in 1967, was a innocuous young woman whose classes of forty students were free for alls and fatal for someone like me who didn't "get" abstract maths in the first place.
So I knew almost straightaway I didn't fit, but studied the things I enjoyed as best I could, before heading off to the factories after being finally chucked out over a strike in favour of an arts/drama subjects teacher who had fallen foul of the system.

Frances said...

"Students buying pre written essays."
So much import given to assessment these days.
Educated parents assist their children by questioning, by correcting, by challenging,by informing, by suggesting resources. Their children's performance is hugely inflated by this intelligent, informed and personalised tutoring.
Highly educated and informed parents do all this,know the quirks and more.
Kids who don't have the advantage of educated parents or Anglo speaking parents, look elsewhere to overcome the deficit. As they should.
The assessment process is crap, and reflects parents' educational status and input as much as anything.
Bring back tests.

paul walter said...

What Frances says is so true.
I should kiss the ground in gratitude to two parents and some good school teachers, who were so thorough at ensuring I got access to early literacy and the vast expanses it opens, for those bestowed this motherlode gift.

Anonymous said...

Currently 70% of a student's grade in Year 12 is school assessment, and most of that is assessment of work done outside the classroom. For many of the students who can afford them, much of this work is done by their tutors.

Anonymous said...

Worth bearing in mind that all this varies considerably from state to state. In Victoria it is 50% exam, 50% SAC BUT SACs are done in class, not at home, and while some preparation may rely on outside assistance basically the students do them on their own: causes a fair degree of pressure but probably the fairest system so far, in my view.

-Paul Salzman

Armagny said...

If I am ever a lecturer I will look to the exam set by a Danish professor who visited my uni to teach EU law. At the end of the course he sat each student in a chair and subjected them to a 15 minute oral examination. I suspect there wasn't a student who didn't personally cram their butt off.

I would make them write a critical essay first, of course. But then if they wrote it, and conceived its key ideas, they should have no problem defending them.

Anonymous said...

The hideous monster formerly known as j_p_z (also sometimes known as "Four Yorkshire-japerz") sez:

Pfft, it is to larf.

Unlike the rest of you softies, I really DID walk to school in the blinding snow, early and often.
No, it's not a joke, I really did. One time, during a blizzard when I was in first grade (had to be 14 inches at least, and probably more), I set out in the morning -- parents thought nothing of this at the time -- and on my usual route I thought it would be funny to climb up on top of the row of parked cars and march through the snow that was still stacked high on top of the line of parked cars.

What I hadn't realized of course was that the gaps between the cars (which all looked even, like an endless unbroken path of snow) were actually as high as the cars only because people had shoveled the loose snow from the sidewalks into the space of the gaps before I had begun my march. Which is to say, there was nothing underneath.

So at six years of age I triumphantly stepped off the hood of a snow-covered car, only to free-fall plunge into a pile of loose snow much taller than myself. Well that was a surprise, to be buried on all sides in a wink.

It wasn't calamitously hard to break free, but I lost my boots in the process (which got stuck), and so I literally walked the rest of the way to school more or less barefoot, in the actual blinding snow.

Just goes to show, some of these cliches have a way of being true. And no, I'm not making it up. And also no, I'm not drawing any conclusions from it. Just thought you'd be amused by the reality of actually doing something that's a preposterous cliche.

Anonymous said...

Yes, and what about the Schoolies Weeks that follow these so-called exams? A lot of apparently nicely brought up kids seem to be getting smashed and jumping off their parents' beach house balconies all around Australia. Perhaps if they had to go straight back to the classroom to do their prac teaching or to the factory to earn their board money......