• School leavers are receiving ATARs. But why do we make them do exams in the first place? (AP)Source: AP
When 17 and 18-year-olds are on the cusp of adulthood, why do we subject them to agonising exams?
By
Dom Knight

16 Dec 2016 - 2:25 PM  UPDATED 16 Dec 2016 - 2:25 PM

It’s the time of year when school leavers find out how they went in their exams. Our 17 and 18-year-olds will be feeling joy, relief, disappointment and agony when they really should be enjoying the beginning of adulthood.

If you’ve just been through this, or have someone in your life who has, congratulations, and rest assured that you’ll highly likely never have to endure anything like it again. And commiserations on having had to do so in the first place.

Year 12 was probably the worst year of my life. For the 12 months leading up to my final exams, I couldn’t relax for a moment without feeling guilty. Every time I hung out with friends, watched a movie, or listened to The Cure because they were the only ones who understood my teenage angst, or even lingered reading the newspaper at breakfast, I worried that I was jeopardising my very future.

Why do we make 17-year-olds sit these hellish exams? What skills are we hoping they’ll learn from the process? 

It was agonising. And yet the growing feeling of dread didn’t in any way change my behaviour. I spent a lot more time stressing than I did working.

The great thing – even though it may sound like people are lying to cheer you up when they say it – is that there are lots of ways to getting where you want to be. Even if you want to do a highly academic degree, there are lots of subsequent entry points. That way you’ll get assessed on whether you can do accounting, for instance, instead of a whole series of other, largely unrelated things.

And that’s why Year 12 if of minimal relevance to your future, but still the source of maximum pressure.

Why do we make 17-year-olds sit these hellish exams? What skills are we hoping they’ll learn from the process? In what way does a series of agonising examinations prepare them for their lives ahead, lives in which they’ll have information constantly at their fingertips online? They probably won’t ever handwrite that much, ever again.

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It’s worth noting that the main abilities assessed in exams are study organisation and memory skills. Unless you do a degree where you’re supposed to be able to diagnose problems on the fly like law or medicine, you will never need to do this again – and even then, you’ll have thick books and powerful computers handy, instead of having to remember the name of that famous case with the ginger beer that contained a snail. (Donoghue v Stevenson, by the way. I wish that bit of my brain space contained something else.)

I can understand the notion of making the end of our schooling life involve some kind of assessment, but why not a more sustained project of the sort that students will be required to deliver when they enter the workplace? The only field in which that seems to happen is the creative arts. Musicians and actors having to perform for examiners is a reasonable simulation of performing for the public. Submitting a major piece of creative writing (if you are allowed to do that), or artworks for potential exhibition is an equally likely predictor of what those careers are like.

I can understand the notion of making the end of our schooling life involve some kind of assessment, but why not a more sustained project of the sort that students will be required to deliver when they enter the workplace?

As someone who writes for a living, I’m perplexed by the way humanities are assessed. I ended up at university for more than a decade, and had to sit quite a few exams here and there. I can honestly say that none of them compared to Year 12, either in the pressure or the actual nature of the exam.

I submitted essays, wrote take-home exams with a weekend’s turnaround, and in some cases wrote open-book essays – I barely had any school-like exams again. In that sense, the Year 12 challenge of churning out 40-minute essays didn’t prepare me for the rest of my life – it was far more painful.

For those who don’t want to go to university, I’m at a loss as to how final year exams are in any way helpful. Surely there are more valuable skills school leavers can muster than how to sit at desks, and handwriting answers relating to a bunch of things they’ve read. Is that really the sum total of our educations?

It’s what we’ve done for centuries, but it shouldn’t be. I’d rather students had four hours to use a computer to prepare a project, with limited Internet access, and get assessed on that. Because that’s how our lives work now.

In the meantime, students will continue to suffer unnecessary pressure. But at least there’s one upside which Year 12 survivors will be experiencing right about now. When a huge, intense, stressful project is over, relaxing feels so much sweeter. That, at least, doesn’t change after you leave school.

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