I write this on A Level results day in the UK, a day on which measuring the worth of young people happens every year, and happens badly. I don’t really think any system of assessment is going to deliver fairness – it could not hope to do so without the context of a fair society. The child who goes to school hungry is not going to get the best results they are capable of at eighteen. The child who has no quiet place to study is set back. Inequality means that testing is in part a test of privilege.
Exams measure your ability to remember and recall. They measure your ability to perform quickly under pressure. Stress and trauma make accurate speed under pressure that bit harder. Not everyone is fast thinking, and speed is not the only measure of capability. I have known a few amazing slow thinkers in my life, and their not being fast has everything to do with the remarkable fine detail they are able to contemplate. Exams are not a great way to measure creativity or original thinking. They probably aren’t the best way to measure problem solving skills. They do not measure social skills, emotional intelligence, compassion, dedication, or what a person might be capable of in the future. Sometimes they do a very good job of measuring sheer luck.
We don’t live in a meritocracy. Your chances of being rich have far more to do with the wealth of your parents than any personal attributes. The cream does not naturally rise to the top. The well connected stay at the top and tell us they are the naturally rising cream in a meritocracy. Exam results can create an illusion of mobility, but you only have to look at who is in power and what kinds of backgrounds they have to know that in the UK, most of us don’t have that many options.
Imagine how the education system would look if our primary concern was to help young people become healthy, happy, well rounded adults. Imagine what would change if we considered education to be a lifelong endeavour, and not something you have to crack in your teens. What would education look like if it was not primarily about readying people for an ever shrinking jobs market? Imagine if it wasn’t about getting a job! What would we want our young people to learn if we accepted that many of them might not find meaningful work? What would we want them to learn if we were focused on the implications of climate crisis?
The school system we have is not inevitable, and not the only way of doing things. The ways in which we measure worth underpins a social structure that doesn’t work for most of us.