Cancel exams? What is an appropriate response to the COVID-19 disruption?

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‘Dear Government, please remember before deciding between offline and online exams that we’ll be able to vote next year ;)’, tweeted several students in India last week. In recent days, ‘cancelboardexams2021’ has been trending on Twitter in the country with almost a hundred thousand students signing a petition urging the government to either cancel board exams scheduled to be held in May or conduct them in online mode because of the health risks involved. This is just as COVID-19 cases are surging.

Countries around the world have taken multiple different approaches to whether and how exams should happen since the arrival of COVID-19. A UNESCO organized event on the issue in April 2020 concluded that, even then, 58 out of 84 surveyed countries had postponed or rescheduled exams, 23 had introduced alternative methods such as online or home-based testing, and 22 maintained exams, while in 11 countries, exams were cancelled altogether.

In India, for instance, when  COVID-19 hit in 2020, board exams were first postponed and then cancelled, with results announced on the basis of an alternative assessment scheme. In the UK, no exams took place in summer 2020 and those who were to sit A level, AS level or GCSE exams received a calculated grade instead. In France, while Baccalaureate exams were cancelled last month and replaced with continuous assessment, the government currently expects exams to be held in person in June. This has also led to protests, with students reacting to images of crowds being led to exam halls telling the government ‘we are not cattle to be led to an abattoir’.

The changing approaches to exams are in themselves causing frustrations, with students in one Algerian university going on strike a fortnight ago complaining that their exams had been changed from virtual to in-person at the last minute. Yet another online campaign emerged last week in Jordan, entitled #CancelUnseenExamsInJo because, while British curriculum examinations had been announced as being cancelled at the start of the year, they were re-instated again in March on short notice.

Despite concerns, many countries or institutions are ploughing ahead with in-person exams, making specific safety arrangements that take COVID-19 considerations into account. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) in India and Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) have assured those protesting this week that this is the case, for instance. Mexico’s  largest public university, the National Autonomous University even went as far as to hold its entry exams last August for thousands of hopeful students in a football stadium. 

That exams are going ahead is still not enough for some students, however. Brazil kept its exams in place this January, but more than half of the 5.7 million registered candidates still stayed away. Exams are also ongoing in Mauritius this week, and the media is rallying around an open call by one student to the Minister of Education asking him not to punish her for not attending.

One issue that some have with a shift to online exams, of course, is that, like it or not, students cheat, and they find it easier to do when online. It is hard to stop students keeping their notes or phones to hand when answering questions on their computer in their bedroom. Using Google to search for answers, or even chat functions during exams, is very hard to control. And, if the college admissions scandal in the United States teaches us anything, it is that some are willing to go to extreme lengths to bypass rules when it comes to entrance exams to competitive schools. Even if we shouldn’t be naïve about the levels of cheating that goes on during exams when in-person, there is no doubt that shifting exams online facilitates negative practices.

Despite assumptions on the link between online exams and cheating, however, is it really concerning enough to say they should never happen? The fact is that there isn’t much reliable data on this issue because most figures come from self-declarations of cheating, which aren’t obviously always forthcoming. There are some efforts being made, however, to see if cheating has increased during COVID-19, such as the idea below of tracking Google searches of examination terminology while AP exams in the United States were taking place.

Hints of cheating aside, though, there is nothing systematic and dramatic enough in the current evidence that makes it a reason on its own to say no to online exams at all cost. All of us are desperate to get back to normal life and soon, including governments and many students too. The speed with which we do that, however, and the health risks we open the door to as we go, need to be carefully managed. Education, students and the teaching body have suffered from decisions that haven’t managed those trade offs effectively this past year. We must make sure that exams – and therefore students – are not yet another victim of this dancing act.


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