Credentialism and Overexamination

Only time for a quick post this morning as I have to go into the department to get my things ready for tomorrow, when the Autumn Semester starts and I have to begin lecturing (at 9am on a Monday morning). Anyway, the text for today’s sermon is provided by Ed Smith’s Left Field column in the New Statesman, the latest issue of which I read yesterday. His topic is the rise of credentialism and the resulting excessive amount of examination in the British school system:

It is now widely accepted that British pupils are excessively over-examined. Teachers are so busy focussing on examinations that there is little time left for education. Exam-led cramming has become the year-round norm – like an election campaign that consumes the whole political cycle. Exams are obviously necessary. But there is an optimal amount of assessment and it has been far exceeded. Grade inflation – notwithstanding this year’s controversial “crackdown” – is simply accepted as a fact.

It’s well said, and it’s not just the school system that suffers from disproportionate emphasis on assessment over education. It’s rife throughout the university system too, starting with the reliance on A-level grades as criteria for assessing students’ suitability for university study, through the “modular” undergraduate degree programmes with examinations twice a year for three or four years.

We examine far too frequently and the effect of this has been to turn the entire education system into a meaningless exercise in box-ticking.

It is an unfortunate irony: in our age of credentialism, exams have never mattered more. And yet they have never been more unreliable as gauges of academic quality.

I’ve felt for some time that in my discipline, Physics (and Astronomy) A-levels are virtually useless as indicators of the suitability of a student for doing an undergraduate degree. Some of the very best students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach came into my university with modest A-level scores; and some students who came in with perfect grades at school never adjusted to the different, more independent type of study required of an undergraduate.

As Ed Smith points out, the increased emphasis on examination grades hasn’t expanded opportunity either.  It may appear to be fairer to base university entrance or award jobs on examination results rather than, say, interviews, but this has just led to a system that can be easily gamed – private tutors, cramming, re-sits to improve grades, and so on. He rightly concludes that the “correlation between exam results and intelligence has been steadily weakening”.

So what’s the alternative? Smith mentions the admissions process at Harvard University, which famously ignores high-school grades and relies on its own interview system. Interviews can be very biased if carried out in an inappropriate way. Subjecting a young person to a 30-minute grilling  in a room with a complete stranger can be enormously stressful for applicants who are shy, and would also play into the hands of those whose educational background has involved specific training for such ordeals. But one thing I’ve found by talking to students face-to-face is that it doesn’t take very long to identify precisely those things that the examination system does not: imagination, enthusiasm for the subject,  and a flair for thinking on your feet:

One teacher told me with regret that she had to advise her most academic pupil not to display her full intellectual range: in order to secure all the ticks, first you have to stop thinking freely.

If you don’t believe this, take a look at this GCSE Science Examination. A truly intelligent student would struggle to find any correct answer for many of the questions on that paper!

This is why we still place so much emphasis on interviews in the postgraduate admissions system: we take it for granted that all applicants for PhD places will have good undergraduate degrees. What marks out an excellent candidate for a position as  research student, however, is not the ability to pass exams but a mixture of creative flair and almost obsessive determination to surmount the difficult challenges involved in independent research. The correlation between these characteristics and degree results is by no means strong.

The problem for a UK University in adopting the Harvard approach is that credentialism is now running the system. Students apply to universities largely on the basis of their predicted A-level grades, lowering their sights if their predicted grades would not be expected to get them into a more “presitigious” department. But departments that take in students with low A-level scores also get marked down in the league tables for taking in “weaker” students. We’re all aware that A-levels are basically useless, but both sides are  bound so tightly into the system that there seems to be no escape.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know if there is one, but I’d love to see what would happen if all universities abandoned A-levels and instead set their own entrance examinations and interviews. It would be a huge amount of work, but it would make a refreshing change if universities could gather useful information rather than relying on the uninformative guff produced by the national examination boards.

And here is Smith’s closing remark that rings very true to me for personal reasons,

There is a further dimension to the problem of credentialism. It encourages life’s winners to underestimate their good fortune and to over-rate the extent to which they deserve their success. Far from advancing talent over privilege, credentialism has strengthened the grip of people already at the top.

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5 Responses to “Credentialism and Overexamination”

  1. Because we get way too many applicants with the top A-level grades we have to interview all likely candidates. It is, as you say, a huge amount of work. It does reveal what you say – that many with top grades don’t have what it takes in terms of knowledge or capability to do a physics degree, and that the nature of the school does not correlate well with capability.

    A-levels need to change. The one thing that could be done to help us would be to add to the (achievement level) grade some other qualifier to indicate national ranking and maybe some more local ranking as well (individual school level is too small, but the country is too big).

    I can’t see that universities setting each their won exam would reduce the amount of over-assessment. It would probably add to it, as pupils take exams from several different universities to ensure they secure a place.

  2. Regarding an alternative to university exams, ETH Zurich (amongst others, I’m sure) has an oral component. Students sit down with the professor and a teaching aid and are asked 10-15 minutes worth of exam-style questions. They work out the problem “live”, with the occasional prod to fill a mental blank. Obviously, its only for smaller classes (e.g. senior cosmology). Your comment about interviews also applies to these exams: “it doesn’t take very long to identify precisely those things that the examination system does not: imagination, enthusiasm for the subject, and a flair for thinking on your feet.”

    • Is this during the university studies or exams for prospective students?

      • During university studies, and I think only in later years. I’m not sure if an interview is conducted for admission.

      • OK. That’s how it was when I studied physics in Hamburg. The master’s thesis counted twice and four oral exams (1 theory (covering thermodynamics, electrodynamics and quantum mechanics; theoretical mechanics was already covered in an undergraduate exam to separate the wheat from the chaff), two experimental topics from structure of matter (I chose elementary particles and nuclear physics, but one can choose stuff like condensed matter) and the minor (mine was astronomy)) counted once each and the mark was the mean. In other words, apart from the thesis, only oral exams go into the mark. To be sure, in order to qualify for the oral exams some written stuff is required, usually a certificate for each course which usually means solving enough homework problems successfully and a written exam (an hour or so) at the end of each course. These count only for the qualification to the oral exam, i.e. once one passed them that was it. If one failed the exam, one could take the course again. Oral exams were open in the sense that, if the person being examined didn’t object, someone else could sit in and listen. The professor asked the question and someone else (anyone with a master’s degree) took notes and could say something if necessary and perhaps discuss the result with the professor.

        I think an oral exam like these are much better suited to determining what the person examined really knows.

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