How Exams Maybe Ruined Your Whole Life

Your time starts… Now. 

The exam hall fills with an updraft as a thousand students flip over the front page of the exam booklet. Some are nervous. Others feel they are in their element.

I was always in the latter group. The pressure of having two hours to show everything you know is just like the pressure of producing a newspaper story right on deadline. The marks I got on exams were almost always better than the marks I got on assignments.

Whether I studied hard or crammed like a boss didn’t matter. I generally knew the answers or a decent way to bluff, and my biggest problem would be getting cramp in the hand that wrote the essays and coloured in the little circles.

Today is the day of the Victorian Certificate of Education Maths Methods exam – one of the biggest and most important subjects. I remember that exam clearly. I had prepared more for it than any other. I spent hours doing every practice problem in the book so on the day I was the captain of calculus and I nailed an A+.

Many students will not be so calm. Many will be in a state of nervousness that will actually hurt their score.

The bad news is this will ruin their life.

New research out of the US National Bureau of Economic Research argues exam performance has long-term consequences for schooling attainment and labour market outcomes.

The way they ran their test was by finding an external factor that could plausibly disrupt student performance. They settled on air pollution, which has been shown to hurt human productivity on a range of tasks.

Students who did their exams on days with bad pollution went on to have lower scores, reduced years at university, and lower monthly earnings. (The test in question is Israel’s version of the SAT test, which is heavily weighted in university admissions).

To get the data they used air quality testing sites within 2.5 km of the schools where the tests were being run.

An increase in particulates by one standard deviation on testing day reduced test scores by 0.65 of a point (a tenth of one standard deviation), with the result mostly driven by strongly worse performances on strongly polluted days.

When the air clears, the effect on cognition also clears. But the effect of the low score plays out throughout students lives.

An increase in particulates on exam day by just half of one standard deviation reduces monthly adult earnings by $29.

“Our analysis highlights a major drawback of using high-stakes examinations to rank students. If completely random variation in scores can still matter ten years after a student completes high school, this suggests that placing too much weight on high-stakes exams … may not be consistent with meritocratic principles.”

Exams are not good preparation for real life any more. No serious job forces people to solve problems without reference to the internet, conferring with colleagues, or time to think (airline pilots dealing with a nosedive and firefighters maybe excluded).

Exams discriminate in favour of people who can go in there calm, and hurt people who didn’t get a good night’s sleep a good breakfast, who have a headache or a cold, or – for whatever reason – are wigging out.

These are likely to be talented people, who may miss out on the course of their dreams, and a subsequent job that they would have excelled at. Exams seem fair but they are not. It’s not just random bias as described above, but systematic bias too. We should call “pens down” on the whole exam system.

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

3 thoughts on “How Exams Maybe Ruined Your Whole Life”

  1. The problem here is taking any one exam too seriously. Using SAT-type results as a big part of university entrance scores places a lot of emphasis on this one thing (on one day), whereas exams spread out across years 11 and 12 and weighted sensibly among other types of assessments shouldn’t display this effect.

    Also, I disagree that exam skills are as disconnected from working life as you suggest. Often we do have more time and resources at our disposal, but not always, and being able to respond to a novel problem and plan and execute a response quickly is at the very least valuable, if not always essential, depending on the job. It’s inefficient always to be having to look things up, even though you can find answers that way.

    Add practical exams to the mix and it becomes more obvious how being able to find the instructions is very different from just being able to step in and do the task when it comes up.


    1. Hi Gab

      I do agree that a dozen exams is better than just one. And a mix of exams and assignments, as per VCE, is even better. But rolling assessment across all of year 11 and 12, which I know happens in the ACT might be better still.


  2. I think the ability to cram and stay up all night studying and then use your brain under pressure might be preparing you for some jobs like corporate law or medecine.
    The trade off with the ACT system is that if you stuff up in yr 11 that stays with you all the way through – so kids who decide late that they care about the magic number are pretty screwed. I liked it though :)


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