Unavoidably Exploitable

We’ve now seen that exams aren’t a very good form of assessment. Educators are aware of this, but there is little that can be done about it.


The answer is simple. Educational systems are under enormous pressure to operate within two key constraints:

  1. Resources. Implementing and scaling a high-quality method of assessment to potentially millions of students requires huge amounts of money, time and staff. There are very rarely huge amounts of any of these things available.
  2. Fairness (standardisation). No student should be advantaged or disadvantaged by any aspect of the process, since nobody will tolerate any compromise on fairness.

Let’s break it down a bit further with some examples:

There is no easy way to comply with all of these requirements and still maintain a high-quality exam system.

We solve a lot of these problems by introducing a high degree of standardisation to exams, but this leads to other problems. Standardisation must remain from one exam to the next. Otherwise students from one year might be advantaged or disadvantaged compared to the next year. This creates consistency between past exams and future exams. Since past exams and mark schemes are visible to future students, this consistency leads to predictability. Predictability can be exploited.

In a standardised system, the syllabus cannot change too frequently. Neither can the style and format of questions. This would reduce the level of standardisation and make exams less fair. Together with the fact that the syllabus can only contain easily examinable material, it’s inevitable that you will see similar or even the same questions appearing from one year to the next. This can be exploited.

Clearly, the goal of education is to get an education. But in a standardised system, your education is not built around getting an education. Your education is built around your exams. As a society, we choose to sacrifice the quality of our education so that it can be easily quantified at reasonable cost. What a lovely thought.

Universities want to provide higher-quality education, but in doing so they have to decrease the level of standardisation in their exams. As a general rule, university exams are far less standardised than large-scale exams taken at high school. This closes some of the holes exposed by standardisation, but it also reveals another set of exploitable flaws. We’ll talk about these in Part 3.

Whether you are at school, university, or elsewhere, it doesn’t matter. Any form of assessment faces a fundamental tradeoff between its quality, fairness, and the need to operate within the boundaries of limited resources. Since there will exist flaws in any configuration of this tradeoff, there is no form of assessment that you cannot take advantage of.