The desks are set out in tidy lines, the walls stripped of posters and displays. Outside the classroom, students line up, clasping clear plastic bags that hold pens and the prescribed calculator. The rules are followed. An invigilator arrives and ushers the candidates inside. Shish! Be quiet please! The examination is about to start. Over the next few weeks this ritual will take place time and time again in schools around the country with roughly 140,000 senior students sitting NCEA externals and a smaller number, international qualifications such as the IB Diploma or Cambridge.
Examinations have been around for over a thousand years. Introduced into China by the Sui Dynasty in 605 AD, they were designed to select the best candidates for specific governmental positions. Prospective civil servants from all echelons of society studied the Confucian classics with their knowledge tested by written responses. With the Emperor supported by the most able of his subjects, his power was strengthened and the aristocracy, a threat to his position, kept in check. Success in the imperial examinations provided access to the scholar gentry class. This conferred high social status not just on the individual but also raised up his family as well. For this reason, education was always highly valued in ancient China and this remains the case today.
In contrast, it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that Britain reformed its ineffective and corrupt public service. Influenced by the meritocratic system of Ancient China, a government report in 1854 recommended that recruitment for the civil service should be on ability determined through standardized examinations and that promotion should be through achievement, rather than patronage or bribery. A fairer, more effective system was implemented in England and replicated throughout the Western World including New Zealand.
Mass testing has some drawbacks but on balance it serves us well. No one in this country would want to return to the time when passing a single test, School Certificate, determined whether you continued on with your formal education. Nor would we want to resile from changes made in recent years in secondary schools to test practical skills in more appropriate ways. In fact we need to further hone our ability to assess the ability to collaborate, to communicate verbally and to demonstrate leadership- those ‘soft skills’ that are difficult to quantify but are essential in the workplace today.
This year, NZQA launched its first electronic Common Assessment Tests (eCATs) in mathematics and second language learning. Within a few years, computers rather than pen and paper will be used for all examinations in New Zealand and other developed countries. However, regardless as to whether students write their answers by hand or use a computer, examinations, along with other forms of testing, continue to be a fair and effective way of testing knowledge and understanding as well as critical thinking and written communication skills. They will be around in one form or another for a few years yet.