Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 24. 26th September 1973
Exams ~ A smokescreen for inequality
Exams ~ A smokescreen for inequality
It's the exam time of year again. Many students are in the process of twisting and warping their brains by indulging in the practice of cramming. And what for? It is all to get that little scrap of paper which tells an employer you have made the grade.
The degree awarded after successful completion of studies is meant to be proof that a person has acquired a certain level of proficiency in a field of study. Underlying the success of a student in any given field is the assumption that the degree of success obtained is a reflection of the student native intelligence. Thus, in a society where jobs are stratified into hierarchies of complexity, success at school and university ensures the student of a complex top job. As well as this, when he leaves university, the student who succeeds will get more status and material rewards than the failure will get. The failures in the great education gamble get low level jobs in the hierarchy and are subject to the authority of the successes.
The tables show that between universities and between years in the same university, there is considerable variation in pass rates. This means that either there is a corresponding variation between years and between universities in intellectual ability, or that the degree does not accurately specify levels of intelligence between students who have not studied the same courses in the same university in the same year. It is unlikely that IQ varies so much that in VUW's Accountancy Department pass rates for stage three could change by 25% in one year. Employers hire graduates on the basis of their degree. If the proceeding reasoning is correct then it is unimportant for that degree to reflect accurately either ability in a field of study, or IQ. This being correct, what determines the pass fail rate, and why is it necessary to have exams?
Beyond the Students' Control
Does something external to the student govern the pass rate fluctuations? One possibility is that the demands of employers for graduates affects pass rates. At VUW this could be done through the Business Studies Advisory Committee and the Careers Advisory Committee where company directors are heavily represented. The other possibility is that students pass or fail according to the needs of the department. If a department wants few graduates to enhance a reputation for producing quality, pass rates may be low. Or, if a department wants lots of students in order to boost staff numbers or research capability, pass rates may be high.
If these are some of the reasons which govern success or failure in the university, why bother to have exams at all? The answer is that they claim to be objective measures of a persons ability. And it is important that a person who passes must believe he passed because he is superior, and that the failure recognise his inadequacy.
Privilege in Society
The exam rigmarole which students suffer is no more than an elaborate smokescreen to hide the perpetuation of privilege in society.
A look at who goes to university confirms this statement. There is a disproportionate representation of the middle classes at the university. For example, only 5% of university students in 1969 had parents who held semi-skilled or unskilled jobs. Yet this category comprises about 40% of the labour force.
Success in education is determined not by the intellectual ability necessary to pass exams, but primarily by ones class background.
The person who works low down the hierarchy of jobs is primarily required to follow orders. He transfers this to his family life.
The family is also run in an authoritarian manner with the breadwinner being the oppresssor. The children of ordinary workers grow up in their first five years learning to behave according to the rules laid down from above. Schools are also forced by and large to treat working class children in the same way. This is what the children themselves expect.
The middle class family operates differently. The breadwinner is high up the job hierarchy. He generates the orders which achieve the organisations goals. The middle class man is able to generate the correct orders and behave in the correct manner because he has internalised the norms of the firm.
Rewards for Conformists
This situation is transfered into the family. By subtle pressures the child is trained to adopt the norms of behaviour the parent requires, and thereby regulate its own behaviour without constant recourse to rules and discipline.
At school, the middle class child finds its own family conditions reproduced. Our education system values and rewards this ability to conform to certain norms of behaviour and to internalise them while retaining flexibility and critical reflection within those norms. Obviously the children of the middle class have a head start in the exam stakes. It is hardly surprising, that the kids with all the advantages succeed.
Many university departments state quite openly that they reward those who internalise the departments norms. For example, the Sociology Department's list of criteria for marking some essays at 101 level was the following: "Marks will be awarded for identifying what the question requires, then providing it." This approach requires the internalisation of the assumptions of the questions. Within that framework, 'independent' thought was also rewarded.
Thus, exams are not really important, as the level of IQ is not an important requirement for being a success in the economy. The important ability that is required to be a success is a class characteristic learned in the home. One of the major function of education and examinations in this society is to obscure this fact and throw a smokescreen around the inequalities of status and reward that are perpetuated in our society. Ability is not of major importance in determining the success of the individual, jobs need not be hierarchical and rewards unequal You suffer exams to help hide these facts.