How a traditional exam system fails all students

A good educator recognizes that an intelligent student doesn't necessarily fit into a conventional box

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high schoolA recent National Post column argues that the extra time Canadian universities and colleges allot for students with special needs to write exams is unfair, comparing it to “winning the gold medal for the 100 metres by running only 80 metres.” The column by Bruce Pardy, a professor of law at Queen’s University, makes some valid criticisms but is fundamentally flawed.

With an increasing rise of mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and attention deficit, and a demand to accommodate the needs of those with physical challenges or learning disabilities such as dyslexia, university and college administrations process more and more requests from students who want additional time to write exams. The intent is to create a more equal playing field.

But Pardy and others argue the outcome isn’t fair. He points out that exams are “competitions,” much like an Olympic race, and grades are an educator’s method of “discriminating” excellence between students. Allowing a student with special needs extra time gives that student a head start.

Human rights codes mandate that the “needs of  students with disabilities must be accommodated to ensure equal access to educational services.” It’s fair to explore whether exam extensions fit the human rights model, but let’s focus on the merit of special needs students getting extra time on exams.

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Pardy’s concept of what makes a good student or an inadequate one – who gets the best grade during the time allotted for an exam – is flawed. This thinking assumes only students who can quickly write and think cognitively deserve high grades. But this measure puts all students at a disadvantage. The resulting increased demands for exam extensions force post-secondary schools to acknowledge a faulty testing method.

Pardy also claims it’s too easy for a student to claim a mental disability, saying they only need a medical note and sometimes don’t even have to disclose the disability to the institution. This is simply wrong. At many schools, students must fill out extensive forms, meet with faculty and attend workshops before being allowed extended writing time. It’s a cumbersome but necessary process.

A student pays enormous sums of money for an education, not to compete. And a good educator recognizes that an intelligent student doesn’t necessarily fit into a conventional box.

Exams help determine how well a student understands material. But demanding that a student demonstrate that knowledge in a limited time can be unfair. For a student who struggles with anxiety or learning disabilities, it’s gruelling. Gauging who can explain the material faster doesn’t determine who’s more intelligent. It doesn’t take into consideration cognitive differences or how people interpret information.

Alternative education, whose main objective is to accommodate different learning styles and the individuality of students, recognizes some of the pitfalls of mainstream education.

Many disabled students require technological help to accomplish what others take for granted. It would be unfair not to give them extra time to accommodate that technology. Being visually or physically challenged doesn’t mean you aren’t academically exceptional. Similarly, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both struggled with dyslexia but proved that intelligence isn’t limited to how fast you can disseminate what you have learned. How many students could achieve remarkable things if they weren’t held back by a highly-structured exam model?

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It would be far better for universities and colleges – and, ultimately, employers – to ask what makes a successful graduate. Should we eliminate timed exams altogether? Examinations are essential to measuring a student’s understanding of material. But using timed tests to determine intelligence exposes a system that evaluates students on how fast they can assimilate thought rather than the depth of their understanding.

Exam scores don’t determine success in life. Success is ensuring all students achieve to their capabilities, not demanding they disseminate at high speed.

Troy Media columnist Maddie Di Muccio is a former town councillor in Newmarket, Ont., and former columnist with the Toronto Sun. 

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