Standing out when so many people test well: How exam-based education fails to prepare students for the realities of work

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Living in a country with 1.3 billion people can make it hard to stand out. For students in India, the pressure to excel in such a vast population is immense. Test scores have transcended the education system to become a status symbol for children and their families in society.

India’s education system sees pupils undertake dozens of tests before they reach college. All of these tests are standardized across the country to create a framework for colleges, universities, and workplaces to benchmark the skills of students and job seekers.

For many, standardized tests are merely hurdles to overcome in order to get into universities and earn a degree. They test memorization and regurgitation skills, and it may be argued that these tests don’t translate into real workplace skills – an increasing number of employers reject young graduates and job seekers because they lack the communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking required of modern workers.

Is exam-based education failing to prepare students for the realities of working life, and are standardized tests fit for purpose anymore?

Tests and exams are not at fault

Every year, thousands of students earn top marks on standardized tests across India. High scores indicate that these students have some good study habits and test-taking skills, but how do those skills 1) distinguish any of those students from other high-achievers competing for limited admissions to selective universities, and 2) translate to the mindsets and collaborative working skills that employers look for in job applicants?

Curiously, tests and exams are not inherently at fault. They serve as useful benchmarks that ensure students have the foundational elements of basic knowledge and skills. However, they do not generally address the creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking that employers seek and which are necessities of entrepreneurship.

French writer and philosopher Voltaire once said, “judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” As a whole, policymakers, headmasters, and principals all need to ask themselves, “does our education system ask the right questions of our students?” Students are rewarded for knowing the correct answers on standardized tests but not for asking the kinds of questions that show they are ready to contribute new ideas that help companies grow or improve society.

At work, you don’t need to know all the answers. It is more important to know how to find the right answers and how to build new ideas from existing ones. It is more important to have the competence to understand the big-picture context of problems and then be able to hire the right people, challenge them with the right questions, apply technology to the best of its capabilities, and collaborate with others to make informed decisions that solve the problems.

Additionally, you would be hard-pressed to find many people who regularly use, if they have not forgotten entirely, knowledge and skills learned at school – especially in theoretical fields. People remember concepts and we should build education systems that help us to flesh those concepts out instead of becoming increasingly factual and precise.

Future-ready learning

Future-ready learning refers to the skills that apply not only to school but to life in general. Collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving are generally at or near the top of this skills list. When looking at job advertisements, time and time again you’ll see problem-solving skills as a required skill. Standardized tests don’t provide a clear idea of a candidate’s problem-solving abilities. Instead, those skills are demonstrated through concrete life examples and the ability to adapt.

Take curricula from other countries as an example. In Finland, the core curriculum includes seven core competencies that transcend all subject-based learning. Students reflect on their own learning process and preferences, interpret and combine information from a wide range of sources, leverage a variety of tools to share their ideas, work collaboratively with peers, and consider the long-term implications of their actions on self, society, and the environment. These competencies are the basis of a holistic approach to education that enables students to distinguish themselves from the crowd. Students take just one standardized test at the end of high school and possibly a separate university admission test.

In the USA, the University of Chicago and the California state university system are just two examples of universities that n o longer require SAT or ACT scores for admissions, and the number of such universities is growing rapidly. Instead of having an admissions process driven by test scores, they are looking for evidence that applicants are life-long learners and well-rounded individuals who will contribute to the university community during their time on campus and represent the university well as alumnae.

Reduce impact on mental health

Test scores are just one piece of the puzzle of university admissions. Alternative assessments such as portfolios, community action, and engagement with genuine audiences throughout the learning process give a more complete picture of students and allow them to highlight the things that make them uniquely qualified for coveted places in universities.

Additionally, high-stakes testing imposes a massive mental health toll on students, as

evidenced by the w ave of suicides that happen when results are released and some

students inevitably don’t hit their targets.

Can society change?

Standardized tests may provide useful benchmarks to ensure that students have fundamental knowledge at a given point in time, but they are not reliable indicators of future success at work, and they do not adequately prepare today’s students for the realities of the modern workforce.

Literate children who know how to learn and effectively communicate new ideas with the world are equipped with the tools to manage daily life, collaborate across cultures, and work meaningfully to build a sustainable future for themselves and for all of us.

New methods and approaches that break the traditional educational norms are becoming increasingly popular throughout India. Getting schools on board is only half the battle. The real struggle is getting parents and society to change its approach to standardized testing.

Author: Bradley M Kremer, Director of Education, New Nordic School

Brad is an educational leader who designs innovative, interdisciplinary, personalized curricula because young people who enjoy school and are engaged in mastering new skills – not just memorizing facts – are most likely to develop the habits of lifelong learners to observe, analyze, test, and evaluate solutions to the challenges they will face at work, at home, and in society. Brad has worked with schools in 10 countries across 4 continents, including more than 15 years in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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