I’ve ranted before - frequently - about the need to replace exams with a less stressful assessment system that better reflects the realities of work beyond school - either in work or in further study.

Just to flog the dead horse for a second, here are some of the problems with exams:

  • In most cases, they reward last-minute study over having full grasp of concepts
  • They ask artificial questions, occasionally with something real-lifey sort of shoehorned in
  • They actively prevent teamwork, research and persistence, which are exactly the skills I would want a student coming through the school system to have.

I was recently taken by a talk by Paul Andersen - not just because he’s from Bozeman, but because he talks a lot of sense.

The American system is rather different to the UK one - generally, it’s a system of continual assessment and you get graded for completing work and doing homework as you go, making the end-of-semester tests a bit less harrowing than GCSEs. However, the SATs that decide which colleges you can get into are just as high-stakes as A-levels.

Andersen’s idea is to reward students for their competence as they go, rather than for completing the homework - rather like a computer game: if you collect enough points at a given level, you get bumped up to the next. This gives students an incentive to work smarter - really getting to grips with the material means they can level up more quickly.

This is what assessment should look like. Ideally, with the occasional, carefully-monitored ‘boss level’ to ensure that the student really understands what he or she is meant to know. It opens up fascinating possibilities for group quests, students assisting each other, working at your own pace, and takes the pressure off for any end-of-term exam you care to set: if they’ve mastered the material along the way, they’ll have no problem dealing with the tests.

Of course, the material needs to be well-structured so that each level reinforces the ones before, rather than the slightly scattershot curriculum we currently have (it’s no wonder kids hate fractions if they have to learn them fresh every time they see them) - but that’s the kind of joined-up thinking we ought to have in any event.

In short, level-based assessment makes so much more sense than end-of-year exams that I feel like shaking defenders of the GCSEs and A-levels by the lapels.