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Why So Many Exams? A Marxist Response < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman
Why So Many Exams? A Marxist Response
By Bertell Ollman


The psychologist, Bill Livant, has remarked, "When a liberal sees a beggar, he says the system isn't working. When a Marxist does, he says it is". The same insight could be applied today to the entire area of education. The learned journals as well as the popular media are full of studies documenting how little most students know and how fragile are their basic skills. The cry heard almost everywhere is "The system isn't working". Responding to this common complaint, conservatives—starting (but not ending) with the Bush Adminstration—have offered a package of reforms in which increased testing occupies the central place. The typical liberal and even radical response to this has been to demonstrate that such measures are not likely to have the "desired" effect. The assumption, of course, is that we all want more or less the same thing from a system of education, and that conservatives have simply made an error in the means they have chosen to attain our common end. But what if students are already receiving—more or less—the kind of education that conservatives favor? This would cast their proposals for "reform" in another light. What if, as Livant points out in the case of beggars, the system is working?

The l7th century French philosopher, Pascal, noted that if you make children get on their knees every day to pray, whatever their initial beliefs, they will end up believing in God. It seems that a practice repeated often enough, especially if it includes particular movements and emotions, can exercise an extraordinary effect on how and what we think. Didn't Marshall McLuhan warn us in the early years of T.V. that "The medium is the message"? What applies to praying and to watching T.V. applies as well to taking exams. If you make students at any rung of the educational ladder take lots of exams, this will have at least as much influence on what they become as the kind of questions that are asked. In short, exams, especially so many exams, teach us even more than they test us. To grasp what it is they teach us is to understand why our system of education already "works" and in what ways conservative proposals for reform would make it "work" still better.


Before detailing what young people learn from their forced participation in this educational ritual, it may be useful to dispose of a number of myths that surround exams and exam taking in our society. The most important of these myths are -

l) that exams are a necessary part of education. Education, of one kind or another, however, has existed in all human societies, but exams have not; and the practise of requiring frequent exams is a very recent innovation, and still relatively rare in the world;

2) that exams are unbiased. In 1912, Henry Goddard, a distinguished psychologist, administered what he claimed were "culture free" I.Q. tests to new immigrants on Ellis Island, and found that 83% of Jews, 80% of Hungarians, 79% of Italians and 87% of Russians were "feebleminded", adding that "all feebleminded are at least potential criminals". I.Q. tests have gotten a little better since then, but given the character of the testing process, the attitudes of those who make up any test and the variety of people—coming from so many different backgrounds—who take it, it is impossible to produce a test that does not have serious biases;

3) that exams are objectively graded. Daniel Stark and Edward Elliot sent two English essays to 200 high school teachers for grading. They got back 142 grades. For one paper, the grades ranged from 50 to 99; for the other, the grades went from 64 to 99. But English is not an "objective" subject, you say. Well, they did the same thing for an essay answer in mathematics and got back grades ranging from 28 to 95. Though most of the grades they received in both cases fell into the middle ground, it was evident that a good part of any grade was the result of who marked the exam and not of who took it;

4) that exams are an accurate indication of what students know and of intelligence in general. But all sorts of things, including luck in getting (or not getting) the questions you hoped for and one's state of mind and emotions the day of the exam, can have an important affect on the result. Here, readers only have to think back to exams where you were well prepared and did poorly, or where you knew very little and did extremely well;

5) that all students have an equal chance to do well on exams, that even major differences in their conditions of life have a negligible impact on their performance. There is such a strong correlation between students' family income and their test scores, however, that the radical educational theorist, Ira Shor, has suggested (tongue-in-cheek I think) that college applications should ignore test scores altogether and just ask students to enter their family income. The results would be the same—with relatively few exceptions, the same people would get admitted into college, but then, of course, the belief that there is equality of opportunity in the class room would stand forth as the myth that it is;

6) that exams are the fairest way to distribute society's scarce resources to the young, and hence the association of exams with the ideas of meritocracy and equality of opportunity. But if some students consistently do better on exams because of the advantages they possess and other students do not outside of school, then directing society's main benefits to these same people merely compounds the initial inequality. Between members of this educational elite, of course, a degree of meritocracy and equality of opportunity does exist—though George Bush Jr.'s emergence as President should tell us something about its limits. What is unfair are the material benefits won by the whole of this educational elite by doing better on exams than the rest of the people in their age cohort when it is not the exams but differences in their conditions of life that have determined most of the outcome. Perhaps this is what former President and millionaire, Jimmy Carter, meant when he said, "Life is unfair";

7) that exams, and particularly the fear of them, are necessary in order to motivate students to do their assignments. Who can doubt that years of reacting to such threats have produced in many students a reflex of the kind depicted here? The sad fact is that the natural curiousity of young people and their desire to learn, to develop, to advance, to master, and the pleasure that comes from succeeding—which could and should motivate all studying—has been progressively replaced in their psyches by a pervasive fear of failing. This needn't be. For the rest, if the only reason that a student does the assignments for a particular course is that he/she is worried about the exam, he/she should not be taking that course in the first place; and 8) that exams are not injurious—socially, intellectually and psychologically. This is a big one, and I prefer to deal with it in connection with my analysis of what exams actually do.


Complaining about exams may be most students' first truly informed criticism about the society in which they live, informed because they are its victims and know from experience how exams work. They know, for example, that exams don't only involve reading questions and writing answers. They also involve forced isolation from other students, prohibition on talking and walking around and going to the bathroom, writing a lot faster than usual, physical discomfort, worry, fear, anxiety (lots of that) and often guilt. They are also aware that exams do a poor job of testing what students actually know. What student hasn't griped about at least some of these things. But it is just here that most of their criticisms run into a brick wall, because most students don't know enough about society to understand the role that exams—especially taking so many exams—plays in preparing them to take their place in it.

Up to this point, my main effort has gone into debunking our most widespread beliefs about exams as so many myths. But if exams are not what most people think they are, then what are they? The short answer, as indicated above, is that exams have less to do with testing us for what we are supposed to know than teaching us what the other aspects of instruction cannot get at (or get at as well). To understand what that is we must examine what the capitalist class, who control the main levers of power in our society, require from a system of education. Here, it is clear that capitalists need a system of education that provides young people with the knowledge and skills necessary for their businesses to function and prosper. But they also want schools to give youth the beliefs, attitudes, emotions and associated habits of behavior that make it easy for capitalists to tap into this store of knowledge and skills. And they need all this not only to maximize their profits but to help reproduce the social, economic and even political conditions and accompanying processes that allow them to extract any profits whatsoever. Without workers, consumers and citizens who are well versed in and accepting of their roles in these processes, the entire capitalist system would grind to a halt. It is here—particularly as regards the behaviorial and attitudinal prerequisites of capitalist rule—that the culture of exams has become indispensable.

Well, what does sitting for so many exams, together with the long hours spent and anxiety involved in studying for them, and the shame felt for the imperfect grades obtained on them, "teach" students? Here's the short list:

l) The crush of tests gets students to believe that one gets what one works for, that the standards by which this is decided are objective and fair, and therefore that those who do better deserve what they get; and that the same holds for those who do badly. After awhile, this attitude is carried over to what students find in the rest of society, including their own failures later in life, where it encourages them to "blame the victim" (themselves or others) and feel guilty for what is not their fault;

2) By fixing a time and a form in which they have to deliver or else, exams prepare students for the more rigorous discipline of the work situation that lies ahead;

3) In forcing students to think and write faster than they ordinarily do, exams get them ready—mentally, emotionally and also morally—for the speed-ups they will face on the job;

4) The self-discipline students acquire in preparing for exams also helps them put up with the disrespect, personal abuse and boredom that awaits them on the job;

5) Exams are orders that are not open to question—"discuss this", "outline that", etc.—and taking so many exams conditions students to accept unthinkingly the orders that will come from their future employers. As with the army, following lots of orders, including many that don't seem to make much sense, is ideal training for a life in which one will be expected to follow orders;

6) By fitting the infinite variety of answers given on exams into the straitjacket of A, B, C, D and F, students get accustomed to the standardization of people as well as of things and the impersonal job categories that will constitute such an important part of their identity later on;

7) Because passing an exam is mainly good for enabling students to move up a grade so they can take a slightly harder exam, which—if they pass—enables them to repeat the exercise ad infinitum, they begin to see life itself as an endless series of ever more complicated exams, where one never finishes being judged and the need for being prepared and respectful of the judging authorities only grows;

8) Because their teachers know all the right answers to the exams, students tend to assume that those who are above them in other hierarchies—at work and in politics—also know much more than they do;

9) Because their teachers genuinely want them to do well on exams, students also mistakenly assume that those in relation of authority over them in other hierarchies are also rooting for them to succeed, that is, have their best interests at heart.

10) Because most tests are taken individually, striving to do well on a test is treated as something that concerns students only as individuals. Cooperative solutions are equated with cheating, if considered at all. Again, the implications of this for how students should approach the problems they will confront later in life are usually taken as obvious;

11) Because one is never quite ready for an exam—there is always something more to do—students often feel guilty for reading materials or engaging in activities unrelated to the exam. The whole of life, it would appear, is but preparation for exams, or doing what is required in order to succeed (as those in charge define "success").

12) With the Damocles sword of a failing (or for some a mediocre) grade hanging over their heads throughout their years in school (including university), the inhibiting fear of swift and dire punishment never leaves students, no matter their later situation;

13) Coupled with the above, because there is always so much to be known, exams—especially so many of them—tend to undermine students' self-confidence and to raise their levels of anxiety, with the result that most young people remain unsure that they will ever know enough to criticize existing institutions, and become even physically uncomfortable at the thought of trying to put something better in their place.

14) Exams also play the key role in determining course content, leaving little time for material that is not on the exam. Among the first things to be omitted in this "tightening" of the curriculum are students' own reactions to the topics that come up, collective reflection on the main problems of the day (like the war), alternative points of view and other possibilities generally, the larger picture (where everything fits}, explorations of topics triggered by individual curiousity, and indeed anything that is likely to promote creative, cooperative or critical thinking. But then our capitalist ruling class is not particularly interested in dealing with workers, consumers and citizens who possess these qualities.

15) Exams also determine the form in which most teaching goes on, since for any given exam there is generally a best way to prepare for it. Repetition and forced memorization, even learning by rote, and frequent quizzes (more exams) leave litle time for other more imaginative approaches to conveying, exchanging and questioning facts and ideas. Again, creative and critical thinking are discouraged.

16) Finally, multiple exams become one of the main factors determining the character of the relation between students (with students viewing each other as competitors for the best grades), the relation between students and teachers (with most students viewing their teachers as examiners and graders first, and most teachers viewing their students largely in terms of how well they have done on exams), also the relation between teachers and school administrators (since principals and deans now have an "objective" standard by which to measure teacher performance), and even the relation between school administrations and various state bodies (since the same standard is used by the state to judge the work of schools and school systems). In short, exams mediate all social relations in the educational system in a manner very similar to the way money—that other great mystifier and falsifier—mediates all relations between people in the larger society, and with the same dehumanizing results.

Once we put all these pieces together, it is clear that the current craze for increasing the number of exams for students at all levels has less to do with "raising standards", as the popular mantra would have it, than with developing more extensive control over the entire educational process, control that will allow the ruling class to streamline its necessary work of socialization. Control, then, rather than education, as this is ordinarily understood, is the overriding aim of the Government's current passion for more exams, and it must be understood as such, and not as a misguided effort to "raise standards" that is unlikely to work.


The question that arises next is—Why now? For it is clear that while exams have been with us for a long time, socializing students in all the ways that I have outlined above, it is only recently that the mania for exams, for still more exams, has begun to affect government policies. The short answer to the question, "Why now?", is probably something we can all agree on. It is—globalization, or whatever it is one chooses to call this new stage at which our capitalist system has arrived. But to which of its aspects is the current drive for more exams a carefully fashioned response? The proponents of such educational "reform" point to the intensified competition between industries, and therefore too between workers world-wide and the increasingly rapid pace at which economic changes of all kinds are occurring. To survive in this new order requires people, they say, who are not only efficient but have a variety of skills (or can quickly acquire them) and the flexibility to change tasks whenever called upon to do so. Thus, the only way to prepare our youth for the new economic life that awaits them is to raise standards of education, and that entails, among other things, more exams. On this view, exams are there to help students get and keep good jobs.

A more critical approach to globalization begins by emphasizing that the intensification of economic competition world-wide is driven by capitalists' efforts to maximize their profits. It is this that puts all the other developments associated with globalization into motion. And it is well known that, all things being equal, the less capitalists pay their workers and the less money they spend on improving work conditions and reducing pollution, the more profit they make. Recent technological progress in transportation and communication together with free trade and the abolition of laws restricting the movement of capital allow capitalists today to consider workers all over the world in making their calculations. While the full impact of these developments is yet to be felt, we can already see two of its most important effects in the movement of more and more companies (and parts of companies) out of the U.S. and a roll-back of the modest gains in wages, benefits and work conditions that American workers have won over the last fifty years of struggle. There is no question but that capitalists are simply following the goose that lays the golden egg wherever it takes them; they have always done so and will always do so, no matter the social costs, so long as we allow it.

Thus, while capitalists in this new age of globalization certainly need workers with the right mix of skills and knowledge to run their businesses, they need every bit as much—and I believe even more—people across the society and particularly in the working class who will accept their worsening conditions and accompanying fears and anxieties without making waves. Naturally, if changes in education alone (with the main focus on exams) could produce the desired effect, the capitalists would be very pleased. But if—and where—it can't, the capitalists and their government (and their media, and their cultural, educational and social institutions) are quick to supplement it with other tactics. The current rage for more exams, therefore, needs to be viewed as part of a larger strategy that includes the obscene stoking of patriotic fires and the chipping away of traditional civil liberties (both rationalized by the so-called "war" on terrorism), the promotion of "family values", restrictions on sexual freedom (but not, as we see, on sexual hypocrisy), and the push for more prisons and longer prison sentences for a whole range of minor crimes. Simply put, the "Man" is worried about loss of control at a key turning point in the development of capitalism when the disruption in people's lives is going to require more control than ever before.

Is there also a connection between the explosion in the number of exams and the current drive toward the privatization of public education? They appear to be quite separate, but look again. With new investment opportunities failing to keep up with the rapidly escalating surpluses in search of them (a periodic problem for a system that never pays its workers enough to consume all the wealth that they produce), the public sector has become the latest "last" frontier for capitalist expansion. And given its size, and therefore potential for profit, what are state prisons, or utilities, or transport or communication systems, or other social services next to public education? But how to convince the citizenry that companies whose only concern is with the bottom line can do a better job educating our young than public servants who are dedicated to the task? Yet, what seems impossible could be done if—somehow—"education" were redefined to emphasize the qualities associated with business and its achievements. Then, of course—by definition—business could do the "job" better than any public agency.

Enter exams, especially standardized exams, especially so many of them. Businesses exist to make a profit, a sum of money that can be quantitatively measured at the end of the year, and all their activities are organized accordingly. Increasingly, the forces most responsible for the system of education in our society have begun to treat exams and the grades students receive on them on this model. Standardization, easily quantifiable results, and the willingness to reshape all intervening proceses to obtain them characterize the path to success in both exams and in business.

How long does it take for what is still a model for how to deal with education to become a new definition of what education is (and can only be) about? When that happens (and to the extent it has already happened), putting education in the hands of businessmen who know best how to dispense with "inessentials" becomes a perfectly rational thing to do. In this manner, whether undertaken consciously or not (and I suspect it's a bit of both), does the introduction of more and more exams prepare the ground for the privatization of public education.

If there is any reader out there who still believes that exams have more to do with education than with control (and possibly privatization), and that increasing the number of exams is motivated by a sincere desire to help people learn, a recent story in the New York Times (Mar. 7, 2002) has something just for you. Poverty, it seems, plays a major role in lowering students' grades on exams. According to studies cited in this story, the prevalence of lead in the homes of poor children produces lower I.Q.s and interferes with children's ability to concentrate. Frequent moves because of the lack of a permanent home also makes it very hard for the young people effected to prepare for exams. Persistent toothaches, due to inadequate dental care—another byproduct of poverty—is another problem related to poor exam results. After listing several such factors (simple hunger from not eating enough is not mentioned), the author concludes, "it is curious (my emphasis) that when we see poor children with lower test scores, we fail to consider if improving conditions of poverty, sometimes at relatively little cost, might also have an impact". Well, it would be "curious" (and more, and worse) if raising test scores and providing a good education were the goals of the exercise. But if the main goal of tests is maximizing control and learning how to accept being controled then the special handicaps under which some students suffer in taking tests is completely irrelevant. Which is it? Examine the evidence, then you decide. (Here's an exam worth taking).


"What Is To Be Done?". Or, more to the point, what should students do about all this? Well, they shouldn't refuse to take exams (unless the whole class gets involved), and they shouldn't drop out of school. Given the relations of power inside education and throughout the rest of society, that would be suicidal, and suicide is never good politics. Rather, they should become better students by learning more about the role of education, and of exams in particular, in capitalism. Nowhere does the contradiction between the selfish and manipulative interests of our ruling class and the educational and developmental interests of students stand out in such sharp relief as in the current debate over exams. Students of all ages need to get more involved in this debate, therefore, in order to raise the consciousness of young people regarding the source of their special oppression and the possibility of uniting with other oppressed groups to create a truly human society.

Beyond this, just remember that THEY are few and WE are many, but the power that comes from our greater numbers only becomes operational when people get organized and work together toward agreed upon goals. Everything depends on the youth of today doing better on this crucial test than my generation did, because the price for failure has never been so high. Will they succeed? Can they afford to fail?