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A few days ago, a friend approached me asking for some help with her biology work. We sat down and I explained the concepts as best I could, but there was something nagging me throughout. When she got up and started packing, I blurted out ‘Kat, how do you not know this yet? We’ve had like four tests on it already.” Katherine, to her credit, was not as offended by this as she easily, and rightfully, could have been. Instead, she smiled wryly and said: “How could I have learned anything? I’ve been too busy studying for tests.”

Her statement was completely counter intuitive to everything we had grown accustomed to over the last couple of years, and at first, I dismissed it as the incoherent product of an over-taxed mind — a description which applied to just about everything that came out of the mouths of our school’s newest group of sixth form students. Yet the more I thought about it, the more what Kate had said made sense.

It had become increasingly apparent over the two years that had elapsed since we’d begun ‘proper work’ (preparing for our board exams, that is) that we had settled into a vicious cycle: unit, test, unit, test, unit, test. It was a routine that managed to be both monotonous and exhausting. And at first there were moments of frustration, anger, the occasional bout of tears, but most of all, there was a lot of complaining. Each time, we received the same message in response: “this is to help you learn,” “it helps us track your progress” and the ever-present: “this is the way it’s going to be from now on.” So we accepted it (what choice did we have) and our focus shifted from questioning the system to simply trying to avoid collapsing under the weight of it.

And in retrospect, that shift changed everything. The effects of it were shown best by the previously ‘good kids’ — the straight arrows with the unshakeable moral compasses. The ones who were always ready to help but never accepted any themselves; the ones who sat quietly during tests, always preferring to fail honestly (though they never did) rather than cheat and excel. Those same people became as desperate as the rest of us. The second the teacher turned their back, we were ready to go. Notes were passed, papers were slid across the table and back, answers were exchanged and everyone felt a small weight lifted off their shoulders in the time it took the teacher to write two sentences on the board. It was a scramble for one more tick, one more mark, one more point anywhere,  because each and every one made a difference.

Now of course, cheating is a choice, and the choices we made are on us. But that choice, was, and remains very understandable, not because we didn’t care about being honest anymore, but because honesty could cost us dearly. The tests clearly were intended to help teachers track our progress, because those test grades were apparently the only things they knew about us anymore. My first parent-teacher conference in Year 10 was something of a shock to me. I was one of the few people who didn’t believe that our teachers were evil and out to get us, so I had always enjoyed close, friendly relationships with mine. Sure, I hadn’t had as much time to talk to them this year, but that still held true. Except it didn’t. That evening, as I approached them and smiled, my new teachers greeted me with a blank stare. It wasn’t until I pointed at my name on their registers, next to a list of test marks that looks of mild recognition dawned on their faces. It was in that moment that I realized that my cheery persona had been completely lost on them. My entire presence in their classrooms had been reduced to a series of numbers on a page.

Testing isn’t an inherently bad thing. No one will argue that every once in awhile, an objective measure of progress and advancement is required. The problem begins when testing is undertaken and relied on to the extent that it is in our school. Because the units we covered in each subject had very little to do with each other, each study session consisted of committing the subject matter to memory and forgetting about it shortly afterward. We laughed when teachers lectured us on constantly reviewing the material — each of them seemed to think that their subject was the only one that we were struggling to balance. Nobody had time or the energy to constantly remain in touch with everything all the time, and the end of year exams we were constantly reminded of always remained just far enough to not have to worry about.

You could argue, as many people would upon hearing this, that this attitude makes us idiots. But shutting down under pressure isn’t unique to teenagers. And when that pressure is continuously piled on both at home and in school, at some point or another, as a friend of mine eloquently put it last year, you “run out of f**ks to give.”

And therein lies the biggest problem of all. Not only does school fail to adequately prepare students to deal with pressure and looming deadlines, it slowly saps them of any incentive to try and push themselves. If I had a riyal for every time a teacher, who while recounting an interesting fact had been interrupted with an irritable “is this going to be on the test?” — well, I still wouldn’t be able to match the number of tests we’ve done. But the point is, some of the brightest, most creative people I know have all settled into just trying their hardest to be ‘good enough’.

Tests cater to one specific type of student — those with excellent memories who are capable of writing fast enough to jot down all the relevant facts. However, learning is a holistic, organic process that entails weaving together facts, theories and ideas together until you understand it all. Our syllabuses reflect that; the way we’re being taught does not. The classroom seemingly forgets the fact that students learn in different ways, and oftentimes, the best of them will completely out at sea when forced to conform to the rigid confines of a standardized test. The idea that “if you look at enough marking schemes to understand what the examiner wants, you’ll come out with flying colors” is abhorrent, and frankly undermines the entire goal of education – to bring out the best in people, and send them out into the world to try and make it a better place. Perhaps a lucky few will be able to make it out of school with their curiosity and creativity intact. But the world needs more than a few. It needs all of those who were left behind, all those who were crushed by a system that rejected what was right, but difficult: adapting to help every student learn, and instead adopted what was quick, and easy.

For 6 marks, describe what that is. You have five minutes.

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