High schools can be very confusing places at the best of times. However, there is no period of time more perplexing than during final exams. This is when the greatest expectations encounter the worst conditions. The weather is suddenly awesome. The snow and cold are finally gone and the warm sun is shining. In the school’s hallways, clothing is down to the bare minimums and exposed skin causes already confused hormones to hyperventilate. Students sit in classrooms looking longingly out the windows at the schoolyard and beyond. Their attention spans have dwindled to compete with that of a goldfish. Yet it is at this very tumultuous time that young people are expected to perform with precision on examinations, the results of which will have a great impact on their futures.
During the previous month, any time teachers lost the attention of their classes they warned, “this will be on the exam” whether it was true or not! Students quivered and furiously resumed copying down notes. At home young people conned parents out of doing their regular chores claiming that they “have to study for exams”. However the studying methods of today’s students are somewhat suspect. If the exams were based on the hand-eye coordination required to fire furious fowl at hidden swine, the provincial pass-rate would skyrocket. If the math exam only required students to add numbers exponentially until they reached an even 2048 then the exam room would be full of very focused young people. Technology has transformed studying into a finely woven tapestry of school gossip, class notes, and OMGing about current celebrities. Laptop screens are divided like Cartesian planes – each quadrant active with social media, games, videos and occasionally school work. Some students surrender to the futility of reviewing illegible class notes and choose to rely on anything that might have been absorbed through osmosis in the classroom …. and on prayer!
The high school gym is arranged symmetrically with desks and chairs. An invisible heat wave washes over the school-weary students. The ill-placed fans push the hot air around the room and the warm breeze requires that the student clutch their government issued pages or lose them. The pungent smell of sweat is worse here than it is in the locker room. Tired teachers who have pulled the short straws patrol the lanes between the desks looking for any student who is motivated enough to cheat. The wall clock counts down the remaining time like a metronome of doom.
Someone wrote that in exams, students look up for inspiration, down in desperation, and left and right for information! In our technology infused world cheating is no longer based on the potentially disastrous “cough once for A, twice for B …” Handwritten crib notes have been replaced with microchips that are inserted into screens that look like rulers. A student with a tiny microphone in his pencil can have a complete conversation with another student who has a hair-covered earpiece. Cameras transmit snapshots of answer sheets from the head of a pen to the eyewear of anyone on the network. All of this communication flies well under the radar of the most vigilant invigilator!
Finally it is all over. Optical scan sheet are sent to Quebec City to be corrected in the sterile computer rooms of the Ministry of Education. Teachers will gather in air-conditioned staffrooms to correct their portion of the exams. When the dust settles there are very few surprises. The students who have done well all year will have excelled on the exam. Those who have missed school, failed to complete assignments, or have been failing tests all year will be obliged to register for summer school.
Undoubtedly exams can be didactic. At worst you discover what you don’t know! For some, the fear of failure is a great motivator to find a way to acquire, retain and repeat required information. Unfortunately however, most exams only measure how well anxious students perform on time-limited tests. Until we discover a better way for students to prove to their teachers that they have understood the information that was taught and until they can demonstrate to the world that they can apply their learning, this examination process will repeat itself with very little variation, withthe same high level of discomfort and with the same predictable results. Good luck students!