It's of no comfort to a child sitting tests in 2017 that the results may not 'matter' in 2037. When you're doing exams, and still in education, you need to believe there's a point to it
It’s common to hear the claim, toward the end of the academic year, that exams don’t matter, usually from those for whom sitting one is a dim, moth-eaten memory.
They froth on Twitter, or hold up well-meaning signs and post them on Facebook. “I failed all my exams” they say, or worse, “I took the tests you’re taking right now and got really low scores. They’re meaningless.”
They may feel like a wise old owl, but they’re tuneless canaries whistling false equivalence. They are taking these tests for a joke, with no preparation, or consequences whatsoever.
It’s of no comfort to a child sitting tests in 2017 that the results ‘won’t matter’ in 2037. When you’re doing exams, and still in education, you need to believe there’s a point to it, to everything, or you begin to tune out. It’s the age-old moan from the back of class: “My mum says you don’t need algebra when you grow up.” Apathy is contagious, and education, being largely free and compulsory, is easy to discredit as a drag, holding you back. And for the dreamers and the adventurers – the target of these so-called inspirational messages – maybe it is.
According to the ‘exams are pointless’ crew, ideas and passion are plucky anti-heroes set to free you from your educational prison, to help you ‘dream big and go on adventures’ – vitally important if you’re going to be smug and comfortable like them someday.
Telling someone to ‘follow their dreams’, however, is dangerous. Dreams stay fantastical unless they’re carefully cultivated, so a child can work out their place in the world and either be inspired to change it or, if more fortunate, use it to their full advantage.
Adults look at dreams differently from children. For grown-ups, dreams are potential opportunities missed, that circumstance and society do their best to keep from you. They’re emotive in nature, because only adults, with time, success and failure behind them, realise what could’ve been. “Nobody helped me, I didn’t let anyone crush my dreams, I never stopped,” they tell you – and perhaps themselves – like only innate self-belief made them this way. They may no longer remember the itch of a too-large uniform on the first day of school, but it’s their education, and its associated goals, that helped these aspirations to take shape.
SATs are a controversial proposition as they seem to be unpopular with teachers, parents and children alike – but they’re not useless. The information learnt won’t evaporate as soon as they’re over. And a child needs to believe that exams are important – otherwise why do them?
Telling a child not to worry about the scores, that they can still achieve their dreams and that trying their best is what really counts is more useful advice. Yes, exams are important, you could say, but doing badly on SATs doesn’t mean you won’t do well in the future. You’ve a better chance of being who you want to be if you work hard. It doesn’t sound as inspiring, or look as good on a sign, but that’s the message they need to hear.
When we attempt to inspire children into being free spirits by suggesting education doesn’t matter, that only dreams and passion are important – ignoring that there’s plenty of passion involved in doing great in a test or studying for a big project – we do a huge disservice to the kids counting on those results. We’re justifying the sneers of families who think clever kids are ‘too big for their boots’. Dreams need fuel. And while character references and a casual leaf through an autobiography would be great, the only recognisable shorthand is academic achievement and exam results – or at least giving them a damn good go.
Exam results can be escape hatches, passports. Not all children are artistic buds waiting to bloom. Adventure and boldness doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Some are dull, awkward and methodical, or shy and bullied. They need a little more convincing that the world can belong to them. Children from less advantaged backgrounds, or the cautious and the modest, can’t rely on dreams; for many of them a good set of grades is their only hope. And who the hell are we to take it from them?