Victoria Tutor’s Exam-Time Sympathies

A book this tutor should read

Here in Victoria this is final-exam time for some of the students I tutor in math and physics. One of the few that I still work with in person (rather than online) should have written the final for Pre-calculus 12 this morning. As I left her home yesterday after the last session for this semester, she was asking her usual semi-rhetorical questions about why we have exams, why they have to be so cruel, etc.

We have been working together for years so I gave her a version of same tired speech that she has come to expect every time she complains about being tested. It goes something like this: “People need some indication of how well you understand mathematics and can use it as a skill so that they know when you are ready to learn more advanced material, like the calculus course that starts next week and the harder ones that you will get at university. As you know from your own experience, tests and exams are very crude instruments. Much of what they measure is simply your skill at test-taking and your temporary mental state. Unfortunately, after decades of research, no one has been able to convince the majority of educators that they have invented a better way.”

This time she threw in the twist of asking, “Why don’t you invent something better?” My reply was that doing so was more her job than mine because she had the motivation. She is still at the stage of life where she has many more exams to come, whereas I am comfortably beyond such misery.

In this article, Anya Kementez describes her provocative 2010 book The Test in which she delves very deeply into the whole issue of academic testing.

“If outdated tests continue to define the experience of public school, the danger is that the parents who can afford to will increasingly opt out of public schools. (Great teachers are leaving the profession over testing too.) When schools lose parents with resources, they get weaker. Weaker schools mean weaker cities, a weaker democracy, a weaker economy, and ever-rising inequality.”

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