Judging by results

We’re not quite there yet, but A-level results day is creeping up on us.  Soon enough I’ll be  embroiled in the celebrations and tears, the frantic rush for Clearing places and the number crunching (designed to prove the results are the best ever on some criterion or other).

I remember how intense it felt waiting for results when I was at school myself – counting down the days until that envelope fell through the letterbox (none of that going into school for them in my day!).  It felt like the most important thing in your life  at the time, though I’m sure that most people who didn’t get exactly what they wanted in their exams haven’t really found it blighted their lives!

Performance in exams has always mattered for a number of purposes, but these days it seems to be expected to define everything about a person. Far fewer universities interview these days; there’s a tendency to judge it all on GCSEs and AS grades. I can understand why some are not too inclined to pay attention to personal statements (who knows who wrote it) – although it is galling for those applicants who spent many hours on it. Ditto school references – they are dependent partly on school policy and partly on the skill and knowledge of the person writing it. But not finding anything out about the person, rather than just their exam results seems very sad. There’s even a couple of universities that don’t interview for medicine.

Even worse, the standard graduate jobs tend to do a first filter on degree class. Choosing for academic purposes using academic data is one thing (exams aren’t perfect, but at least they are aiming at measuring academic performance. But choosing for a job???  We all know there are many factors that influence how good you are at a job, and quite frankly, class of degree is very unlikely to be the most important one. OK, if you got a 3rd, something probably went a bit wrong – you shouldn’t be getting that unless you were dead lazy (not a good sign for an employer), spent your entire time doing extracurricular stuff (maybe not quite so bad, but you’d need to have learnt from your mistakes), chose the wrong course and didn’t realise it until too late (again, not great judgement) or, of course, you were ill.  Sure, if you’re degree’s not so good, the rest of your application should be pretty stunning to make up for it. But don’t assess one-dimensionally – that’s just mad.

That sort of approach – that only a 2:1 or 1st is of any value – also drives up the exam focus within university as well. Unduly exam-focused education is pretty well established in schools – which is a great shame – I really wish Higher Education could dispense with it. I know I’m an old idealist, but I’d like people to learn things because they are interested and want to stretch their minds, not just to pass an exam.

Mind you, you get a stupid sort of inverse snobbery as well. I’ve lost count of how many times people have implied that because I got a first, I had no life when I was at university and/or I must be out of touch with normal human beings.

Sure, exam results tell us something about a person (though it’s difficult to disentangle the natural ability or hard work for good ones, and the laziness/lack of ability/ didn’t listen to advice/poor exam technique/poor subject choice/poor teaching for bad ones). But whatever we do to exams, there’ll be other important factors to assess. Would you choose your friends, or your partner, based on their grades? If not, why think you can choose your employee that way?

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