That examination is an art, and that its cultivation will remove many of the ills of the present academic order is the mind-stirring thesis set forth by President Lowell in the current Atlantic. He looks to a test to serve three purposes: it may be a yardstick of pupils' progress, an instrument of education in its own right, or a fixed standard of achievement. "One of our difficulties has come from paying almost exclusive attention to the first of these objects."
A perfect examination paper, comprehending one or more of these purposes, President Lowell points out, need be subject to none of the ills commonly charged against the examination system. Illuminating, for example, is the application of this reasoning to the criticism, frequently heard, that a certain student works for grades rather than for knowledge. "To chide a tennis-player for training himself with a view to winning a match, instead of acquiring skill in the game would be absurd, because the two things are the same. If marks in examinations do not measure accurately comprehension of the subject as taught in the course and the power to handle it, the instructor is at fault, for his examination does not measure what it should."
If students tend to give back on blue-books merely what they are told, "the way to counteract such a tendency is to set questions that require thought more than memory." If cramming is indulged in beyond legitimate limits,--"The questions should not be susceptible of answer by merely committing to memory facts and formulate." How great a transformation would be wrought in Harvard examination papers by the serious application of this maxim!
President Lowell's stress on the value of examinations when properly administered is an answer to those who are inclined to be misled by the obvious evils into a blanket condemnation of the whole system. Yet undoubtedly the evils exist and serve to emphasize the statement that "The art of examination is still in its infancy."
The present defective state of the art of setting examinations leads to an over-flourishing condition of the art of passing them--by means of methods foreign to the true purposes of education. The seeker of grades is a technician of the first order. Machiavellian attention to insignificant detail, introduction of quotations purposely memorized and designed to convey the impression that the writer could quote with a similar facility on any given subject, and a host of other tricks;--the pursuit of grades is often conducted with an insincerity which accounts in no little measure for the disrepute in which they are held.
The ordinary examination glorifies memory, an intellectual quality of secondary rank. In the final examination period the salient fact stands out that a superficial knowledge embracing many facts which one cannot hope to retain is more profitable than a modest and a sounder one. When the examination impends there is no longer time to think, only to memorize. That examinations test memory rather than mental power is the most cogent criticism against them.
The remedy of course is more careful supervision over the making of examination papers. As President Lowell says. "To make a good examination paper is far more difficult than is commonly supposed. To do so requires much time and thought; but upon no part of the educational process can time and thought be better spent."