Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Remember writing exams?

I am assuming that most readers of my witterings are old enough that they no longer do exams - but do you remember them? Do you remember the awful dread of double and triple checking that you had everything you needed, that you would get there late, that you might not be able to answer any of the questions, that something (anything at all) would go wrong? It was stressful. If you were lucky your best friend was doing the same exam and you could experience the misery together.
It is exam time here at present. I wrote about my own experience with school exams earlier this year (in another place) and I was forcefully reminded of exams when I was at the show grounds recently.
Some students here do exams in the big halls at the showgrounds. You can fit several hundred students into the same place. It is an efficient method of administering exquisite torture.
At least the modern buildings are air conditioned. Years ago the local high school students used to sit exams in buildings like the old Centennial Hall - now demolished. The building was not air conditioned and the external examinations are held in summer. On occasions students fainted in the heat and the stress. A friend of mine still vividly remembers another student having a seizure. It was the year she had a major nose bleed - probably brought on by both heat and stress. Other problems abounded. 
Watching all those university students enter the building a couple of weeks back  I could only wonder and sympathise.
In rural areas we did the exams at school under the supervision of teachers. The rest of the school was expected to "be quiet" while we did them. I am not sure it helped much.
There were very strict regulations then. Any student with any problem serious enough to be granted a medical certificate was given an additional half hour. That was it.  After failing every exam except maths (which did not require much writing) first time around I was granted that extra half hour and, I presume, a note to those marking the papers, I managed to scrape through. At the end of each exam I was an emotional wreck because, after three and a half  hours of trying to write legibly, my writing was even worse than usual. I knew that I wasn't going to get the marks I would have got if I had even had just reasonably legible writing.
A friend of mine, now deceased, was granted permission to use an amanuensis because he could not write at all but it was a rare and unusual thing - and the fuss that went with it was extraordinary. He had to have a special invigilator for each exam - from the examining board. His speech defect was so bad that he was physically as well as mentally exhausted at the end of exam.
It is no way to do exams. It is no way to be assessed.  At university, if there was an essay versus exam option I always wrote the essay. The other students could never understand this but I knew I was going to get much better marks - and I did. 
It wasn't until I went to law school and the Dean of the law school literally raised his hands in horror and told me, "The arrangements we make will be the arrangements that allow you to do your best" that I actually managed to get marks that reflected my capacity to do the work. I still found exams stressful. I still took the essay options where I could but at least I was getting much better results. (Unlike today there was no chance of cheating on the essay option. There was no internet to help you along.)
On one occasion during a particularly long exam for everyone a staff member made sure I had something to drink. (The other students were allowed to take drinks into the examination hall.)
That is what it ought to be like for all students, especially those in my position. 
Exams are about what you know in relation to the questions asked on the paper - and how much of that you can organise and put down in the time available. They are not about what people actually know. We still haven't discovered an efficient and accurate way of discovering everything people know and whether they can apply it. But in the inaccurate world of examining knowledge students with problems who have done the work and do know the material also need to know they are going to have a fair chance of showing it.
It therefore makes me furiously angry when someone I know has to fight for her son's right to do that.
If you know someone going through that please be supportive. There are few things more devastating as a teenager than to fail because, although you know your work, "the system" is designed to ensure you fail.

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