With no external standards, it is impossible to compare the marks of students in different schools, and universities are flying blind when it comes to admissions. The result is that many woefully-unprepared students gain university admittance only to flunk out by Christmas or to see their first-year marks drop by more than 10 per cent. Not only is this hard on the students financially, it also crushes their spirits.
Now, before I go further, I must confess that Departmental Exams were abolished in Ontario when I was in Grade 11 . Two years later when I was accepted at the University of Toronto, there was no "objective" measure of my level of achievement, they simply had to believe my school. Two undergraduate, and two post-graduate degrees later I thought that I was safe, until I was "outed" in the Globe this morning as a charter member of that slacker cohort who skated on into university without my appropriate baptism by fire.
We have come a long way in educating students in the more than four decades that have passed since I graduated from high school. Today's learners exhibit higher level thinking and problem-solving skills than my peers ever did, they are masters at sifting through a variety of data and viewpoints (not just memorizing the approved textbook), and they are risk takers and innovative thinkers. Our assessment techniques are varied and reflect the strengths and skills of our students. Exams are still a part of the mix, but just a part.
Has there been grade inflation? Of course there has. Does it matter? Not really. Grades have become a debased currency. Everyone knows it. That is why innovative institutions ask for portfolios, conduct student interviews, check references and move beyond numbers in their admissions processes. It takes time, and effort, and it is more than worth it, but so far these schools are the exceptions, not the rule. So what about the vast majority of post-secondary institutions? How can they protect themselves against the hordes of "unprepared" students who are pounding at their gates?
To begin with, let's remember that it is not the job of secondary schools to do admissions screening for post-secondary institutions. They have a much broader and more meaningful mandate. It is up to the universities and colleges to identify students who are a good fit with their programmes and services. Complaining that the current high school grading system isn't working for them, is a cop-out and one that sometimes masks the fact that universities over-enrol with an expectation that a certain percentage of students will fail and drop out. The institutions complain, but it is the students who suffer.
Is there a solution? Of course there is. Many countries (and professions) have turned the process on its head. Rather than depending on the standards of another level of schooling to make their decision, they set their entrance exams based upon the standards and expectations of their own institutions. University entrance exams are designed to identify students who are a good match for a particular college or programme - they are a far better predictor of future success than a wide-net admissions process. Entrance exams are common throughout society. You can get a law degree, but you must pass entrance bar exams to practice the profession; Ministries of Transport give you a driver's exam for a license - it is your entrance test for driving - not your exit exam from a driving school. People write real estate exams; CA exams; Superintendent's exams; language proficiency exams; and even citizenship exams.
Let's face it. We all know what exams really are. They are not particularly accurate ways to demonstrate knowledge or skills, they are hurdles to be jumped. In the second decade of the 21st century, we know that standardized exams are just a simple screening device. Those who are good at them, get through; and, those who have a different learning style or skill set, don't.
So, next Spring, could we please stop talking about exams as the great leveller and spend our time finding more creative and inclusive ways to measure student potential? Let's take the pressure off of kids, and put it on institutions to demonstrate how effective they can be in identifying attributes for student success. And please, let's put the annual examination navel-gazing to rest!