(Trick question: the problems with testing run much deeper)
I’m hungry. I am fasting for Ramadan, with five hours to go before food and drink are back on the menu. My concentration is slipping. I’m typing words but running on empty. A small nap is in order. See you shortly.
*30 minutes later*
I’m back, slightly more alert than before and ready to put in another shift.
If it’s not already obvious, my work patterns have been erratic of late. I warned my colleagues that I might adopt nocturnal tendencies during this month, and to not be alarmed if they find me sending emails at 3am or snoozing at 3pm.
My colleagues get it. They understand that my overall productivity will be much the same this month, but that it will arrive in small, often unpredictable bursts. Thank goodness I don’t have a high-stakes presentation or exam that will determine my future career prospects.
Spare a thought for the millions of students who have lived a similar tale, but with a more fateful ending: they were expected to perform in high-stakes exams while fasting, and the results will carry profound implications for their future.
There’s something wrong with this picture — and it has nothing to do with fasting.
It was the news story that never was. Back in January, the UK public was informed that exams would be moved around in the UK to accommodate Muslims students during Ramadan. Those claims were dismissed only a day later, with a flurry of debate in between. Exams were to run as usual.
As a British Muslim educator, my worlds had aligned. For me, the Ramadan debate was a distraction from the much broader issue of how we measure educational outcomes.
Testing and Ramadan have been on a collision course for some time; the Islamic calendar is lunar, which results in it being moved back 10–11 days each year. This year Ramadan has fallen in early June; it lasts for a month and a good majority of Muslims have observed daily fasts between sunrise and sunset, abstaining from food and drink during those hours. Hardly the ideal conditions in which to sit high-stakes exams.
When the first announcement came, I was ready to commend exam boards for adapting their schedules. As a British Muslim I would surely rejoice in this expression of our society’s pluralistic values. But as an Educator, I was still deeply troubled.
Shifting exam schedules to support a subset of students is a selective solution to the endemic problem of high-stakes assessment. Ramadan brings the issue to light but the truth is that assessment has never been a level playing field.
If you’ve ever tried fasting for 18 hours in the summer, you’ll know it is an exercise in endurance. It stands to reason that a fasting student’s performance will dip in the high-pressure conditions of the exam hall. That’s the case for accommodating Muslim students by having them sit key exams outside of Ramadan.
But why stop there? Consider now the student with hay fever; summer time is hardly a blast for them either. Or the student who has picked up a bug the morning of the exam. How about the one who skipped breakfast because his parents ran out of groceries. There’s a multitude of factors that arbitrarily influence students’ exam performance. How will we level the playing field for all students?
Certainly not through a high-stakes exam delivered at the end of a course.
The standard model of assessment turns education into a performance act. It adds a degree of randomness that discredits the grades these exams churn out.
What is more impressive?
- An A grade from a student who was privileged with good health and a clear head the morning of the exam.
- A B grade from a student who battled through dizziness and malnutrition.
At best, it’s ambiguous — the context makes all the difference to our judgement. Unfortunately, grades alone do not provide that nuance.
In the real world our value is measured along several lines: our ability to reason, solve problems, collaborate, write beautiful prose, persevere, inspire others…the list goes on. Many of these traits are holistic, and are characterized by our approach to work rather than blunt outcomes. To reduce these traits to a one-time performance would be to cheapen our conception of human potential.
And yet that’s exactly what we do when subject students to high-stakes exams.
Educational testing needs a rethink. Continuous assessment models have to be the way forward: they lower the stakes, increase reliability, help develop student learning profiles, and place testing firmly in servitude of teachers’ instructional goals. They would render the Ramadan debate a non-event because students would no longer rest on a discrete performance.
Above all else, continuous assessment liberates students from the assessment lottery. It is the best chance we have of making assessment equitable, reliable and relevant.