Posted by Kesang Menezes who is a facilitator at Parenting Matters and mother of two girls aged 11 and 15.
Let me start by telling you that I am neither an educationist, nor someone who has conducted research on this topic. I am simply a parent sharing with you my personal experiences of observing my children grow up in a school environment without tests, exams or grades.
In the beginning, I definitely resisted it. “What is the harm in giving the children an occasional test just to see what they know and do not know?” I argued with the principal of the school. But she was adamantly against it. She said, ‘As a teacher I do not need tests. Every day I am interacting with my students and I know where each of them stands and what help they need. “
This whole concept was quite alien to me. Yes, the children were doing wonderful stuff and seemed to be really enjoying the process of learning, but in my mind learning also meant “studying”. Surely they had to learn those spellings, learn the parts of a leaf, and learn the definition of a noun?? How else would they know everything that is expected of them at their level? And how will the teacher know where the child stands?
As time went by, I was amazed to discover that - at least at the primary school level - learning does happen without having to ever “study” for a test or do home work. I found that my children and their classmates reached the fourth standard knowing everything and in fact more than children of that grade are supposed to know.
Even though we could see how much our children were developing we parents still had doubts about whether this was the right way. “After all, they will have to face exams in the future. They will not know how to handle it. Please give them exams” we begged of the principal. She stood firm in her conviction that she did not believe in exams or tests, and that when they reached a point where they had to do them, they would face no difficulty. I questioned her stubborn attitude. After all, what could be so harmful about a test? “She wants our children to grow up not being in touch with the real world”, I grumbled.
My daughter continued to be in an environment free of evaluation till class seven. While we were generally satisfied with her grasp of concepts and interest in learning, we actually had no clue about her academic capabilities. We had no idea if she was a “good” or “bad” student, the way we all had been categorized in school. We had no idea if she was better at science or math or history or geography. And I think neither did she. Of course she may have enjoyed some subjects more than others, but since there were no tests or marks, she never said (as most children do), “I am so bad at this subject - I hate it! She just seemed to enjoy the process of discovery.
She approached her first set of exams with a sense of eagerness and curiosity. I think by this age (class 8), children are willing to recognize and accept where they stand against others without feeling damaged in any way. They have had so many years to build up their capabilities. Let me give you an example to illustrate what I mean. My daughter was awful at spelling. But the school always encouraged her to write and express herself. And her spellings self-corrected as she went to the higher classes. But it is very likely that if she had been in a traditional system her work would have been covered with red marks. After all, it is the teacher’s duty to mark wrong spellings. Those red marks would have completely discouraged her. And no doubt, she would have sooner or later labeled herself as a poor student.
(Testing and correction do not go beyond to actually give importance to the content and ideas of the work)
Now by class 8, she has overcome many of those initial hurdles and escaped many of those early labels. She is able to see exams and grades in their proper perspective: when she takes an exam she is actually curious to find out her own capabilities. If she does well, she suddenly finds out”Oh, I never knew that I was good at this.” And if she does not do well, she is not easily disheartened and knows that she can work at it. She has reached this age with a strong sense of self and can accept feedback regarding where she needs to improve in a constructive way.
Looking back, I can now truly appreciate her primary school principal’s refusal to evaluate through tests and marks. It would only resulted in my daughter (and us) forming judgments’ about a child at an age when they are just discovering themselves. It squashes a child before they even know their own potential. Testing and marking at an early age divides children into “good” and “bad” and makes them compete against each other instead of helping each other learn. And a “side benefit” for some parents is that there is no sibling rivalry at home about who is a better student- I see my children constantly appreciating the other’s strengths!!
Finally, does most testing really promote learning with depth and understanding, or merely evaluate the ability to recall. When so much of a child’s attention is focused on doing well in the tests, does he really feel like exploring more on a topic? But possibly the worst effect of testing is that such a narrow form of assessment (mug and vomit!) affects how a child perceives himself- his entire self esteem. Are marks - that too in primary school - any indicator of what a person achieves later in life?
I found out that being in an environment without tests, marks and exams at least in primary school, truly helps every single child build his/ her self esteem and motivation to learn, without the fear of being judged.