Wide angle Education

Are we obsessed with exams?

Recently, the Tamil Nadu Minister for School Education K.A. Sengottaiyan announced the state government’s decision to hold public examinations for students in classes V and VIII from this academic year. The news came as a shock to education reformers. A few months ago, when the proposal of introducing public examinations for classes V and VIII, in line with the recommendations of the draft National Education Policy, was mooted by the state government, it received mixed reactions from education reformers, teachers, parents, mental health experts, activists and politicians following heated debates on the issue.

The new policy decision makes me raise these questions. Have we forgotten the purposes of education? Why are we obsessed with exams at a time when some countries have abolished exams at the primary and secondary levels? What negative impact will exams have on students? Aren’t there better ways of testing students’ knowledge and skills?


Looked at it holistically, the primary purposes of school education are to teach values to students, develop their thinking skills and learning abilities, equip them with knowledge and necessary skills in order to help them move to the next stage of education, and prepare them to face challenges in life. What it implies is that subjecting students to unhealthy competitions, celebrating a few students’ success in exams and making other students feel dejected are not the purposes of school education.

It is very sad that many schools in India bombard students with exams. Students are preoccupied with exams and teachers are preoccupied with marking scripts. Yes, the Indian education system is obsessed with exams. It is high time we realised that it does more harm than good.

Examination is a threatening term. It causes mental stress to the students. Fear of exams makes many students in rural areas lose their interest in going to school or discontinue their studies resulting in increase in dropouts. Exams kill the spirit of learning. That is the reason why some countries have abolished exams in schools at the primary/secondary level. They do not focus on marks and grades but on the overall development of the students. For example, in Finland, which is said to have the best education system in the world, students do not have any formal examination until they are sixteen. The Finnish education system promotes creativity and learner autonomy and does not encourage unhealthy completion among students.

If there is too much focus on exams and not on formative assessment, it will have a negative impact on students and society. Rote-learning will be legitimised. Students will be forced to go to coaching centres. More focus will be on coaching rather than on learning. Students will be ranked based on the marks they score in exams and this will result in causing mental stress to the students. Such education systems will kill students’ curiosity and creativity, giving rise to unproductive citizens in the future.

Alternative assessments

There are differences between Alternative Assessments (AA) and Traditional Examinations (TE). AA is a process whereas TE is a product (result). AAs measure students’ competencies in a non-threatening environment throughout the course. It is “the process of documenting knowledge, skills, attitudes and beliefs, usually in measurable terms”. Holistic in nature, the goal of AA is to suggest improvements and help students build their confidence and develop their learning ability. AAs in different forms such as self- report, observation, discussions, quiz, homework, portfolio, practical work, demonstration, class activities and oral presentation can be conducted to assess what students can and cannot do. Such activities help students develop their thinking skills and creativity. TEs test only students’ memory skills and not their thinking skills. They are associated with labels such as ‘failure’, ‘grades’, ‘ranks’ and ‘poor performance’ which terrify young students and have a negative impact on them.


Schools shouldn’t become exam factories which produce marks and create unhealthy competitions among children. Educational institutions should create an environment conducive for learning. When learning is fun, students enjoy going to school. When assessments are non-threatening there won’t be unhealthy competitions and a mad race for ranks. How wonderful it will be if our students have happy schooling and joyful learning.

Instead of focusing on exams and introducing counterproductive policy decisions, the government should have these priorities: improving the quality of teachers by creating opportunities for their professional development, focusing on teacher training so that they know what alternative assessments are and apply their knowledge to gauge students’ capabilities in a non-threatening environment, promoting joy in learning among students and preparing them for life.

The writer is an academic, columnist and freelance trainer. rayanal@yahoo.co.uk

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Printable version | Mar 3, 2021 12:56:34 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/are-we-obsessed-with-exams/article30305385.ece

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