The academic testing debate

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Throughout the time we spend in educational institutions, we run into our fair share of academic testing.

It could be a 1,000 word essay you have 2 weeks to complete or a 2-hour exam sat in the classroom - there no doubt exists a range of different academic testing methods we encounter from primary school all the way to high school and beyond.

There continues to be national and international debates over how best to assess academic ability. Outgoing University of Sydney vice-chancellor, for example, recently backed the implementation of high-stakes exams over continuous assessments.

But, is one method of academic testing better than the other?

High-stakes exams

High-stakes exams, like the HSC, VCE, QCE or equivalent, are those which have high-impact outcomes based on the results of a single exam, such as allowing a student to graduate or an admission to university.

The benefits of high-stakes exams

The nature of high-stakes exams only testing students once means that students have more time to focus on their learning, rather than worrying about completing numerous assessments throughout the semester/year.

Another benefit of high-stakes exams is academic integrity. Cheating or outsourcing study materials in a classroom setting or exam hall is extremely unlikely and the outcome of the test can only be attributed to the work of the student.

The cons of high-stakes exams

Like the name suggests, there is a lot at stake with high-stakes exams. Whether the exams are for a final mark at the end of high school or to complete a university degree, high-stakes exams can be the cause of high levels of stress and anxiety due to the significance given to the outcome.

This can impede a students’ performance and may lead to an inaccurate inference of students’ academic ability as it reflects their performance on one particular day and does not take into consideration external factors.

High-stakes exams can also compel students into studying only for the purpose of achieving a good grade, rather than studying for the purpose of learning.

They also put pressure on teachers and lecturers to achieve high grades from their students and can become compelled to teach to the test rather than encouraging creativity and innovation.

Continuous assessments

Continuous assessments test students’ academic abilities throughout the year. The results of each are accumulative and contribute towards a final grade.

The advantages of continuous assessments

Continuous testing allows for immediate and repeated feedback which allows students to gauge how they are progressing and helps them to identify areas that need improvement.

Another benefit of continuous testing is that they allow students more flexibility as less emphasis is given to the outcome of each individual assessment. If the desired result in one assessment is not achieved student’s have the opportunity to improve in the following assessments.

The disadvantages of continuous assessments

Continuous assessments mean that the pressure on students becomes spread throughout the year. Each assessment can be the cause of high levels of stress, meaning students remain in a constant state of anxiety. Rather than focusing on the process of learning, student’s can get caught up in meeting the next assessment deadline.

Another drawback of continuous assessments is the increased risk of plagiarism or cheating. The increased workload of this testing method may lead students to not feel secure about their own knowledge and rather turn to the work of other people to assist them to achieve a better result.

While there is no simple way to determine the correct balance between high-stakes exams and continuous assessments, the pros and cons of both methods are important to consider, as students have different responses to different methods of academic testing.

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