When Is Fairness Unfair?

In my last article of the year for the blog I would like to concentrate on a more general problem that I have gained some extra insight into during my first year at University of Cambridge and that has been one of my main concerns during the past month or so. The topic on my mind are exams and their place in the education system. Hopefully a fellow student reader will forgive me for bringing this up at this time of the year.

I feel highly concerned about the recent development in this area and the overall direction it is currently taking not only in the UK or the Czech Republic, but from my viewpoint in most of the world. In this text I would like to argue why I think we counterproductively concentrate solely on fairness of examination, suppressing the role it should have in the education system, harming it as a whole. Let’s get it straight. The purpose of exams is not to compare students. It is to motivate them to concentrate on the things that are important, enhance deep understanding of the topics covered and be a useful tool for the teachers to assess their teaching methods. Pressure for their rock solid fairness has led to the origin of centralized exam boards that set up highly predictable questions. The students are then expected to prepare mindlessly for the few set types. If an exam board goes too experimental with their questions, it faces wild criticism from angry parents, whose children have missed their university offers. Keeping in mind the purpose of examination specified above, there is something very wrong with this system. Arguing that this is a necessary evil on the sacred way towards fair education for everyone misses the point. Examination is inherently unfair as it tests only a very limited set of ones abilities, which are often not even that important in their future life. Especially so if we limit exams to set written tests and exclude other alternatives such as oral examination or course work, as is the trend nowadays. Additionally, hiding the problem of social discrimination under bureaucracy of a general examination does not solve the problem, arguably makes it even worse by harming the education system and consequently the society as a whole. The only thing achieved by striving for fairness in examination at any cost is a false sense of objective comparison scale for students, which universities and employers can rely upon. That is simply not the case though. Exams are just a vague proxy for ones abilities required in a given area. They should not be overestimated and universities and employers should have their own specialized means of evaluating their applicants. This would lead to a much wider range of abilities being tested, so that everyone gets a chance in the area they excel at. Further problem with recent development in education is that it is becoming ever less personal. General examination requires schools to teach from textbooks, care more about the students’ results rather than themselves, which leads to a very unhealthy environment that inhibits pupils’ natural curiosity. That was what I experienced in Lincoln, where I spent a year doing As Levels. There have been many excellent teachers, who could not use their abilities being restricted by the curriculum set up by the exam board and pressure for good results of their students. What is then my suggestion to solve this problem? We should bring education back to the personal classroom level and stop trying to control it from above. The student-teacher relationship is the most valuable thing in teaching, which is currently being destroyed by general examination. Without it teaching through discussion, independent thinking and curious interest is virtually impossible. Examination should motivate students to concentrate on the things the teacher considers important. Its form should be as varied as possible. The results should be handled as what they really are: A measure of something unmeasurable, something unavoidably biased in one way or another, not the definite comparison scale. This is how we can achieve truly fair and high quality education.

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