Why the Argument for Exams Being Preparation for the Expectations and Stresses of Real Life is Wrong

The argument goes like this: Exams prepare kids for real life expectations by getting them used to working under pressure to meet deadlines. After all, any working professional gets assigned a task and a deadline and must complete the allocated task within this allotted time. Thus, goes the argument, kids should get used to the ‘real world’ by not complaining at having to complete high-stakes standardized assessments under time constraints. It’s how the world works.

But let’s delve a little deeper.

For the professionals, let’s presume the following:

  • They have a measure of experience in doing what they do.
  • They have a professional qualification.
  • They have a team of coworkers and / or access to information and resources to assist them in completing their project.
  • They have a week or two to complete the project (about 60 working hours). And if they see they are not likely to finish, they can work at home or work overtime.
  • They will work almost exclusively on this one project.
  • A professional worker carves out a bit of comfort for themselves. And they are seldom deprived of coffee, food, and distractions. And (ideally) they don’t have a hawk-eyed superior watching their every move.

Now the exam-writing students:

  • Although they have some experience in the topic, by their very nature, exams are about applying knowledge and skills, and thus much of what the see in such an exam will be new to them.
  • They are still learning and working towards proficiency. They are neither qualified nor experienced to any significant degree.
  • In most cases, they are expected to write exams without collaborating or accessing external information.
  • They have, at best, a couple of hours to complete an exam. With very little extra time allowed.
  • Their head space is often filled with all of the other exams they have just written or are about to write. And they have to remember a full syllabus. For each exam.
  • Kids have their every move monitored in an exam. They sit in a very uncomfortable space stacked in rows and are allowed no distractions.

Clearly, the one thing is not very much like the other.

The professional worker has very many advantages not afforded to the student. Saying students need to get ‘used to it’ isn’t fair on our students at all.

In fact, I’m convinced that if the scenarios were swapped, our kids would come close to upstaging the ‘real life’ office workers. Put a kid into almost any job, assign them just one task, 60 hours, and all the support they need, a comfortable space, and what they will produce might very well be truly amazing.

I’m not sure the real lifer will perform as well on that kid’s exams.

All of which makes me think that this is exactly what we should be doing with assessments. Inquiry and project-based learning tries to give kids the opportunity to showcase their learning by allowing them the time, the resources, and the support they need to create something truly special.

It’s how the real world works.

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