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School Management - Written Examinations

( Originally Published 1897 )

Objects of Written Examinations.-The immediate object of written examinations is to ascertain the knowledge and ability of students. Except in the case of very elementary classes, oral tests, though valuable, are not sufficient. Reproduction in writing of what a pupil has acquired is generally the best test of what he knows and of what he can do.

Written examinations furnish data that may be serviceable to the teacher, the student and the public. The question papers may be set by the teacher, the principal or inspector, or by outside examiners, according to the purposes for which the tests are to be employed. The examinations may be a regular part of the work of the school. They may be used to settle what pupils are to be promoted to higher classes. Very frequently written examinations are made a means of testing the fitness of candidates for certain positions. Training, promotion, and qualifying examinations, thus mentioned, have become a recognized feature of every efficient system of education. It has been found difficult in practice to separate any one of these kinds of examinations from either of the others, and the objections often raised against such written tests are largely due to the results that have followed a combination of the three aims. The attacks on examinations are mainly directed against tests made by outside examiners for purposes of promotion, or for the purpose of determining to whom certificates that have a commercial or qualifying value should be awarded. Examinations are sometimes competitive, the object being to award prizes, scholarships, or positions to the candidate who is deemed most deserving of such distinctions. These examinations are not an essential feature of the functions of school or college. The objections that may be made to them are valid, and have done much to bring unjust discredit upon the entire system of written examinations.

Advantages.-To the student written examinations give information regarding his attainments, showing how far his knowledge is thorough or inaccurate, how far his mode of learning a subject has been right or wrong, and what plans he must adopt for future progress. Written examinations are often revelations to the student of his ability, as well as of his weaknesses and defects. The thorough scholar has no fear of them, but the smatterer dreads them. The certainty that his work will be examined is a powerful, but legitimate, stimulus to effort. Written examinations call for the prompt exercise of intellectual energy which must be self-evolved. They improve the memory, the judgment, and the language of the student. They demand concentration of thought, sustained mental effort, and a ready use of available resources. They serve as an incentive to study and induce attention, interest and industry. They encourage thoroughness and promptitude, cultivate method and self-reliance; strengthen the will, discourage stagnation and forgetfulness, and afford the student a means of estimating his knowledge, his powers and his progress. They give to his school work a measure of dignity, increase his self respect, develop a sturdy, honest, independent manhood, and furnish a preparation for the more important conflicts and struggles that are inevitable when school life is over.

To the teacher written examinations reveal the results of his labor, the failure or success of his methods, the soundness or weakness of his pedagogical principles, and show to what extent he may find it necessary to examine his theories and modify his work. They tell how far his efforts to awaken permanent intellectual activity and to impart real know-ledge have been successful. They show how much his pupils know, how readily they can apply their knowledge, how far the information they have gained may answer the purpose in view, and how well facts can be retained. A searching written examination often becomes a virtual eye-opener to an inexperienced teacher, who wanders in his instruction, talks to little purpose, explains very much, but seldom makes a halt to test results. They indicate the trend of thought of the pupil, his grasp of mind, his habits of study, and his progress in. mental development. They often serve as. a review of the work of the month or term, showing how far the pupils can make a logical arrangement of the knowledge acquired, and how well they can generalize or discuss in a topical manner what has been taken up in a series of lessons. They enable the teacher to add to his personal knowledge valuable data, that will assist in the classification of the pupils and in the organization of the school. They relieve him, to some extent, of possible charges of favoritism that arise when the promotions are based exclusively upon his own .judgment. When there are several teachers in the school, occasional written examinations directed by the principal are necessary, to enable him to gauge the work of each member of his staff, and thus keep himself informed regarding matters of organization and discipline, for which he is responsible to the trustees. Right lines of teaching may, in this way, be suggested to those less experienced ; defects may be pointed out, and unity of aim and the use of good methods may become a general feature of the school. The examination papers, set by some central Board, may serve to prevent teachers from falling into ruts, and may afford a means of having their work compared with what is done in other places.

To the public written examinations furnish, if fairly held, an estimate of the teacher's ability and the efficiency of the school. To judge a teacher's success wholly by examinations is a great educational blunder, but to ignore them is a greater blunder. The test they supply is a valuable one, but whenever it is used due consideration should be given to all the factors which produce results. Written examinations will often expose defective scholarship on the part of the teacher, bad methods of instruction, and objection-able features of school organization. A lack of power to inspire pupils with a love for their work, an indifference to their progress, and an ignorance of what constitutes a training for the duties of life, are sometimes shown by means of a written examination to be faults of the teacher. Generally good work is done in a school where pupils, year after year, pass good examinations. It should be recollected, however, that good results depend more on the ability of the pupils than on the efficiency of the school. The success of a pupil is largely determined by his natural capacity, his early training, his attainments at the beginning of the term, his home associations, and the interest he takes in his work. It would be unfair to hold the principal responsible for the failure of the school to gain a good record, when the trustees have not furnished satisfactory accommodation, sufficient apparatus, and works of reference for the library ; and especially when they have refused or neglected to employ a sufficient number of properly qualified assistants.

Written examinations, if wisely held, give parents and the interested public an excellent test of the progress and attainments of children. Parents should not be left in the dark regarding the application to study their children are making at school. The course in life of pupils is often determined by what a written examination reveals. It is in the public interest that the career of each individual should be well chosen. Written examinations materially assist in determining the natural or acquired ability of pupils. An examination furnishes the best available method of preventing persons from entering callings for which they are fitted neither by natural endowments nor by acquired attainments. Doubtless success at examinations does not guarantee success in after life. There are elements besides scholarship that persons must possess in order to get on in the world. It is true, nevertheless, that few intelligent persons would propose to open the doors to the professions of law, medicine, teaching, divinity, etc., by removing the tests of fitness which are furnished by written examinations.

Training Examinations.-Examinations have an educative value. Those conducted by the teacher are especially used for this purpose. The good teacher is constantly making use of oral and written tests, so as to give proper direction to his instruction. For young children oral questions and answers must be the rule. As pupils advance in their studies written work increases. The principles which guide the teacher in the art of questioning will, to a considerable extent, guide him in the matter of written examinations. The exercises should as in the case of oral questions, foster right thought. They should furnish a training that will promote insight, intellectual power, facility in acquiring knowledge, and power to express ideas in good language.

Written examinations given by the teacher are the necessary complement of good instruction. If wisely arranged they need occasion no injurious mental strain, no danger to health, and no over-pressure. The examinations held during the term should follow the development of the subject taught, and should prepare the pupils for what, to them, should be the less difficult papers set at the promotion or qualifying examinations. Whenever the teacher is satisfied that it will do good, he should hold a written examination. Written examinations for training purposes are not intended to disturb the regular work of the school. They should not supersede oral tests. The growth of the system of examinations has too often caused a decline in the frequency and thoroughness of oral test exercises in elementary schools as well as in High Schools. No plan of testing or recording results can be defended that would be a perversion of the true function of the school.

Generally speaking, the teacher's examinations should not be periodical. Oral and written test exercises should be used whenever required for good teaching, and at no other time. Not necessarily every week or month, but rather when a chapter has been completed, a class of problems finished, or a piece of literature mastered, should the written examination, if necessary, take place. It is obvious that the hours for true teaching tests, whether incidental or formal, cannot be made to conform to the demands of a time-table or to any other mechanical device. A conformity of this nature would be like testing the sanitary-condition of a city at fixed periods, instead of promptly attending to the health of the citizens whenever sickness exists. The time for the proper diagnosis is the appearance of diseased symptoms, and these cannot be regulated by the most skilfully devised programme.

Proper training examinations demand that the teacher shall not only prepare or prescribe the questions, but read the answer papers of his pupils. A report from outside examiners, giving the " percentages " taken, is of but little value. When all the examinations given to the pupils are left to a committee of examiners, from which the teachers are excluded, the high office of the educator sinks to that of a trade. With proper safeguards, no pupil should be advanced to a higher class or allowed to write at a qualifying examination who has not been recommended by the teacher of the school. In this way industry, obedience, honesty, courtesy, and other moral qualities may receive some recognition.

Promotion Examinations.-The careful estimate of the teacher should practically determine what pupils of his class are prepared for promotion. All his oral and written tests should enable him to determine better than any outside examiners the relative attainments of the pupils recommended for a higher class. His estimate should be based, not so much upon what his pupils have done, as upon what he believes them competent to do. The plan of allowing promotions to depend solely upon a final examination has long since been abandoned in the best schools. The evils of such a system have done much to discredit the work of the teacher, and to raise an unreasonable cry against all written examinations. Such a method is irrational, if the teacher conducts the examinations ; and even cruel, if the tests are applied by an outside Board of Examiners.

In some places it is decided to have no promotion examinations. This is allowing the pendulum to swing to the opposite extreme. Teachers have sometimes little experience and need guidance in their work from the principal or the inspector. The questions set for these examinations serve to maintain a proper standard of efficiency. It is also desirable to have promotion examinations so as to relieve the teacher from any unjust charges of partiality, and to protect children from any injustice that might arise if their attainments are not fairly valued. Teachers, it should be remembered, are only human, and, therefore, liable to err. The question papers for promotion examinations should not be too difficult, and they need not be set in every subject. No pupil should be relieved from taking them except in the case of sickness, or some other legitimate cause. No proper written examination should be regarded as a necessary evil, but as a positive good. To look upon any examination of the school as a hardship is to admit that the test is both disadvantageous and unnecessary. If any pupils are to be excluded from the promotion examinations they should be those that are not recommended by the teacher. It is much better, however, to have the examinations regarded as a part of the work of the term.

Qualifying Examinations.-To gain a certificate that will admit the holder to an honorable position is the aim of many a diligent student. The ambition is a worthy one. If the test calls for desirable mental and moral attainments, there cannot be too many young men and women in the community striving to gain the marks of distinction which the certificates indicate. The selection of candidates who are to receive certificates cannot be left to the teachers, though their judgment may, in some respects, have weight in deciding results. An independent Board of Examiners is necessary for this object.

The appointment of a competent body for this purpose involves great responsibility, when many students are affected. The examination concerns not only those who become candidates, but the other students who are taught in the same class. The members of the Board of Examiners should be persons of broad and deep scholarship, large experience as teachers, and sound judgment. No examiner should be appointed who is behind the times in educational methods, or more anxious to propagate his pet theories than to measure good attainments and to direct scientific teaching. The membership of the Board should be changed, to some extent, from year to year, so as to prevent any possibility of getting into grooves. Every examiner of High School or University students should be an expert, but not a "crank " in his special department.

Qualifying examinations cannot be dispensed with. Certain callings demand, in the public interest, that the persons following them should have qualifications of a special character. It is important that those who enter the professions should have a good High School or University training as an evidence of preliminary fitness. That fitness cannot be determined without some test. No better one has yet been devised than a written examination. To prepare students for these examinations mast form part of the teacher's work. It would be practically impossible and on principle undesirable to train pupils who are to pass qualifying examinations in separate classes from those who may never enter a High School or a University. As a consequence the entire work of the teacher is necessarily influenced by the character of the papers set at qualifying examinations. The style of the questions given in his own written tests to the pupils, the manner he conducts the daily recitations, the knowledge he imparts, and the intellectual power he fosters, are necessarily determined by the kind of questions which it is assumed may be given by the Board. It is evident that the entire educational system of the country may be beneficially or injuriously affected by the character of the questions given at the qualifying examinations. The High School Entrance, and. the University Matriculation examinations really determine what subjects engage the attention of all the pupils of the schools, and how those subjects are taught by the teachers. The questions should be such as will not only test knowledge, intellectual skill and mental power, but they should be such as will place a premium on the best methods of teaching, and on the right kind of thought. It is useless to say that teachers should teach well regardless of examinations. It may be answered that one way to teach badly is to ignore examinations. If the examination questions are of the proper kind, the teacher who prepares his pupils to pass qualifying examinations will render service of higher educational value than the one who has the vain impression that he has acquired superior talents for inspiring a love of learning for its own sake.

Examination Questions. - Examination questions should be unmistakable in their meaning. Any obscurity or ambiguity is unfair. The course of study should be carefully followed. The questions should be judiciously arranged, and should be such as will draw out the know-ledge of the pupils, rather than detect their ignorance. Plain, straightforward questions, which can be answered in the time assigned if pupils have prepared their work, are the kind to be given. Difficult questions, which can be undertaken only by the genius, are out of place. The examination should call for the application of principles rather than an enumeration of memorized facts. Questions that show pretentious knowledge on the part of the examiner' should be condemned. Questions should exhibit reasonable variety. Those that puzzle or afford no play for mental grasp are alike objectionable. Scope should be given to diversity of talent. Problems in mathematics, " unseen passages " in literature, and practical work in science, are valuable features to be recognized in setting good examination papers (See Appendix.) It is important to test how knowledge has been acquired, and to defeat the efforts of students and teachers who work for results by unsound methods. One of the most disheartening things is to find a school, in which first-class work is done, come to grief through the blunder of a bad examiner.

It is also necessary that the answer papers of candidates should be fairly valued. Good judgment is needed in estimating the marks that should be given for imperfect answers. The values to be assigned to the different questions will require care. Where questions admit of variety of answers, credit should be given for any answer that is correct. In some subjects, if a mastery of certain principles is shown, it may entitle the answer to almost full value. In such departments as literature and history there is room for much difference of opinion as to what proportion of the marks should be assigned for knowledge, and what proportion for style. The standard for excellence should not be fixed too high for elementary work. It is often desirable to read several papers before deciding upon the scale of marks. Marks should be deducted for certain kinds of mistakes, and for some subjects additional marks may be added for general merit. Papers which give a choice of questions are recommended by many educators. Their value is held by many others to be over-estimated. Unless for advanced students they confuse, and experience is against putting any questions before candidates which they may not undertake. Easy questions and the exaction of a high percentage are preferable to difficult ones with a low percentage. A fair minimum on each paper and a good percentage on the total will furnish additional means of preserving a high standard.

Various methods have been suggested for enabling the teacher's estimate to count at qualifying examinations. Universities allow, to some extent, the sessional work to be considered with the final results. In case of sickness, the industry of the student during the term comes to his relief. For professional examinations, the work during the session is deservedly made a factor in awarding certificates. In High Schools, an estimate of the attainments of each student, in which relative rank is shown, is found of much service to the Board of Examiners. As regards the High School Entrance examination the recommendation of the teacher may properly have weight, as in the case of other promotion examinations.

Objections Considered.- Cramming. The most popular objection raised against written examinations is that they encourage cramming. The nature and evils of this process have already been discussed (Chapter III.). The term itself is used with considerable vagueness, and the charge against examinations, if sustained, decides nothing unless it is clear what cramming means. If it is meant that written examinations lead to hasty, crude, or dishonest preparation of work, they deserve to be condemned. If they call for a statement of information that is only memorized; for badly digested knowledge; for the repetition of an author's words ; or for the reproduction of the teacher's language, they have no claim for recognition in any rational system of education. On the other hand, if they tend to develop the intellectual and moral powers of the student; if the questions call for the application of knowledge acquired, rather than a display of what the memory has retained ; if they place at a discount information that is not assimilated ; if they detect the superficial and give a high value to what is broad and thorough in the formation of character ; and if they become reliable tests of sound teaching ability, they serve a useful purpose, and furnish in themselves exercises of high educational value.

There are some subjects of study to which the term " cram " is seldom applied. A student is not ordinarily supposed to be capable, without due preparation, to pass an examination in such subjects as reading, writing, mathematics, or the translation of English passages into another language. It is sometimes assumed that in such departments as literature, history, or chemistry, a student may get ready for the examination without proper preparation. It should be recollected, however, that a good examiner is able to defeat the efforts of teachers or students who use the " cramming" method for any subject. Literature or natural science, if properly taught, discourage cramming. If the papers set for a written examination are of the right character, the student whose facility in cramming enables him to gain a certificate, deserves credit, while the one whose inability or reluctance to "cram" brings failure, deserves defeat. These assertions are true, whether the preparation involved a rapid review of a subject already studied, or a rapid study of a subject entirely new.

It should be remembered that the power of getting ready quickly for a week's contest-of promptly summoning one's resources for some great mental effort-is an admirable and necessary preparation for life. The lawyer is obliged to "cram" from statutes and judicial decisions for the trial of a case in court; the statesman crams his mind with facts and figures to support his resolutions, or to refute the arguments of an opponent; the clergyman crams for the preparation of his sermon ; the merchant, if he wishes to understand the ,commercial outlook ; the professor or teacher, if he hopes to present fresh illustrations to his class. In fact, no person succeeds in life who - is not at times obliged to put forth unusual energy, to use at short notice all his available knowledge and oversight, and to concentrate his thoughts for the accomplishment of some definite object of importance to himself and to others. It is clear that any attempt to secure an education by ignoring the process of legitimate cramming, such as an examination properly conducted may demand, leaves out of view one of the essential aids for attaining its object.

The Mental Strain Injurious. Written examinations, - if worth much, demand hard mental work. Intellectual exertion is beneficial, but, like physical exercise, if too severe it may defeat its object. Mental exertion should not, as has been stated, be too severe or be constantly required (Chapter II.). Children with a highly-wrought nervous temperament should be freed from any excessive strain. When pupils are promoted to a class beyond their age or attainments, when the work of a year is crowded into a few months, and when they are expected to keep pace with classmates of superior ability, it is no wonder that even the anxiety of an examination does harm. It is not, however, the examination that is at fault, but the undue desire to get on, and the bad classification adopted. Less haste for promotion, and a better organization of the school, would have diminished the over-pressure and would have saved the pupils from an unnecessary expenditure of mental force, from much nervous anxiety, harassing worry, and possible bodily collapse. It is no valid argument against written examinations that some pupils have, under the strain, endangered their health and even their lives. The battles of life are every day presenting examples of shattered minds and bodies, but human existence is too serious in its objects to abandon on that account the con-tests which, in the great majority of cases, improve, rather than injure, the physical, intellectual, and moral strength of those who engage in such conflicts. It must be conceded, at all events, that the examples of excessive mental strain, which are brought to notice in connection with the work of students, call upon teachers and other educationists for such adjustments of school methods as will remove any of the real sources of well-founded complaints.

Independent Teaching Lessened. The charge is made . against qualifying examinations that they destroy independence in teaching. Whatever truth there is in the complaint depends on the nature of the questions. If the person who sets the paper is not guided by sound principles of teaching, originality is discouraged and the idiosyncrasies of the examiner are studied. If his questions discount mechanical teaching, the work of the mere imitator is discredited. If the examiner is not a true teacher, his questions may mislead, and do harm to the school. Satisfactory papers will, on the other hand, broaden the horizon of a teacher whose views are narrow on account of inexperience, and they will give greater opportunity to the teacher of breadth and originality for the display of his genius. To say that a teacher should confine his pupils to his own questions, is to say that he should receive no direction from those more skilful than himself, or that he should evolve his own pedagogical principles without gaining any benefit from standard works on the science of education or the art of teaching. As well might it be claimed that inspectors, and teachers of County Model Schools, Norma] Schools and Normal Colleges destroy originality of effort.

Some Qualities not Tested. It may be admitted that written examinations sometimes fail to give a just estimate of a student's attainments. It does not follow that those who succeed at examinations will do well in after life. It is fortunately true that many who strive hard to pass examinations and who fail, have, nevertheless, bright careers in after life. The effort to win was a help. In spite of all that has been said against mere scholarship, those who are successful in life generally manifested at school those qualities which have weight at examinations. Ability to pass an examination helped many persons to get on in the world. A want of the same ability never assisted any one to win fame or to gain wealth. To say that many distinguished men never passed a brilliant examination, proves no more than to say that many persons gained fame who never attended a High School.

It is true that many qualities of mind and heart are not revealed by written examinations. It is true that good intentions receive no recognition when the answer papers are examined. The percentages awarded depend on what has been done. Moral qualities are not shown in the class lists. There is no minimum fixed by regulation in sympathy, courtesy, reverence, or industry. It should be recollected, however, that the moral element in pupils is cultivated by every teacher who wisely prepares pupils for examinations. The highest intellectual training cannot ignore the moral element (Chapter V.). To win at examinations demands application, self-denial and a laudable ambition. Pupils who strive to gain certificates are on the average better behaved than those who have no wish to secure them.

"It should always be recollected that there are two ways in which the miniature struggle in examinations is preparatory to the real encounter of life. It is not only because it leads men to lay up weapons in the way of acquirements, or to strengthen the sinews of the brain by exercise, but also because it calls out the moral qualities needful for success in life-it requires teachableness, concentration, and above all, the power of `enduring hardness,' of working when one would rather not work, and setting oneself to master thoroughly what may be distasteful. I believe myself that one great effort, in the way of a heavy examination, is a very valuable piece of mental discipline ; it calls out the courage and the resources that there are in a man, and merely to have made this effort conscientiously, and have done his best, gives a moral elevation to the character, even if he fail in winning any very marked success."-Latham.

Competitive Examinations.-The consideration of the prize system as a school incentive (Chapter IX.) has rendered it unnecessary to discuss at length the evils of competitive examinations. If it is unwise in practice and unsound in principle to grant such rewards as prizes to successful competitors in the Public Schools, scholarships awarded to High School or University students on the results of a competitive examination cannot be well defended. Fortunately, public opinion in this country having generally condemned any expenditure of public money for purposes of this kind, private generosity has not grown so much as to make the evil of competitive examinations very noticeable.

An English writer, in referring to the evils of competitive examinations, remarks :

"But the effect on schools is much greater and more serious. For the winning of these scholarships has become the great object of many, if not most, schools. Boys go up and try at one college after another under the advice of judicious men, who know the probable standard at each college. Scholarship classes are formed at school, examination papers are studied, regular education is laid aside for special preparation, the boy is cleverly steered, and the cleverest boy and cleverest jockey, jointly, win the prize and divide the applause ; the honor is duly paraded at the speech-day by the smiling headmaster to smiling boys, applause follows, which lasts for several moments, and care is taken to have the success announced in all the papers.

" I do not hesitate to say, after a good many years' experience, that the effect of these scholarships on schools is almost unredeemedly bad. They are not necessary as a stimulus ; they are totally inadequate and misleading as a means of comparing school with school, and they do a good deal in some cases to degrade the work of masters and boys alike."

If it were possible to grant every student who gains a certain percentage a scholarship, no serious objection might be raised, if the test should be the ordinary qualifying examinations. To make a written examination a mere struggle for position among rival claimants is to introduce a method of measuring relative attainments that does not, as Latham well shows (see "On the Action of Examinations"), always select the most deserving candidate. Fitness for responsible positions should, doubtless, demand certain minimum attainments of an intellectual nature. Any additional qualifications deemed requisite should be those not determined by a written examination. The struggle between rival schools has its evils. As regards qualifying examinations, the rivalry among schools is to some extent unavoidable. It is in the interests of education to pre-vent all unwholesome competition. The prize and scholar-ship system is at variance with modern views of motives to right action, and the recognized objections to the system, have done much to discredit the use of qualifying examinations. It should be recollected, however, that the latter tests differ very much in their purposes and results from competitive examinations.

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