And when it comes to how we measure learning in schools, the focus is often on exams.

Most teachers are evaluated based on their students’ grades. The vast majority of teaching hours are focused on teaching the curriculum in accordance with board exams. For most nations, this becomes the metric that policymakers evaluate. For most parents, these exam scores become the main indicator of their child’s success.

We continue to let students (and society at large) believe that a greater number of A’s is an indication of success, whilst anything lower than a C is often an indication of failure. For many students, it becomes the main measure of their talent, potential, self-worth, and even status in society.

But as many of us know, there are several fundamental issues with exams as they exist today.

They focus more on recall, rather than future skills

One of the core issues with international board exams is that the curriculum that informs them is content-heavy and takes a lot of time to memorize.

In order for a learner to be able to recall an entire textbook’s worth of information in a 1-2 hour test at the end of the year, they need to have spent a lot of time trying to understand and memorize curriculum knowledge. This is all time that takes away from the meaningful development of skills and dispositions that would allow real-world application of that knowledge.

As a best-selling author and education expert, Tony Wagner points out in Creating Innovators,We continue to believe that school is mainly about acquiring content knowledge. We under-emphasize the importance of skills. And of course, with far too many of our standardized tests being multiple-choice, factual recall tests and with much more pressure on teachers to get students ready for those tests, they are cutting everything else out of the curriculum. What gets tested is what get’s taught.

They are not a holistic measure of intelligence

Howard Gardner’s renowned theory of multiple intelligences differentiates intelligence into distinct ‘modalities’, as opposed to a single general ability. These include musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential, and pedagogical. Based on two decades of brain research and evidence, the theory suggests that we all have these competencies to varying degrees and strengths in different bits of intelligence.

However, traditional paper-based exams and standardized tests measure specific modalities such as verbal-linguistic or logical-mathematical. This leaves many students, particularly the artistic, athletic, social, or existential ones, with the feeling that they are “stupid”. But the reality is that their specific type of intelligence is simply not being measured.

They fail to measure progress, effort, personality, or values

Most standardized tests and international board exams measure the ability of a student to take a test, in an average of a two-hour setting. The final result does not give an indicator of the student’s progress (let’s say in the last year) or the effort and determination that they put in.

Another failing of exams, which is symptomatic of our educational model, is we don’t put enough emphasis on developing positive personality traits such as self-responsibility, kindness, empathy, wisdom, love for learning, wisdom, curiosity, or even powerful enlightenment values.

Their learning and determination are reduced to their ability to take one exam and as a result, a lot of information is lost.

The difference between School of Humanity learning and the traditional model is evident in learner satisfaction and the breadth and depth of learning outcomes.

But wait…Let’s start with the first principles

But at the end of the day, we need some way of measuring learning outcomes. If not, how do we know if learning has happened? This data is useful, not just to educators but to learners themselves as they evaluate their learning progress.

In addition to measuring outcomes, we need a way of communicating and showcasing learning outcomes to others (employers, universities, etc) and for this, as a society, we use the report card but that too can be too reductionist.

But are there alternatives?

Many of us struggle to imagine an education system without exams and report cards, but alternatives have been around for many years.

In a workforce impacted by rising artificial intelligence and a world of information at our fingertips, we need to move towards assessment models that put less emphasis on measuring recall, and more on a learner’s ability to create value in society.

Formative or micro-assessments

Why rely on just one assessment at the end of the year? Why not gradually capture attainment towards mastery of learning outcomes throughout a learning journey?

Formative assessments are a wide range of innovative day-to-day assessment techniques that are often done throughout the year in order to evaluate student learning and provide feedback. Traditionally, they have been considered “informal”, because they are often low-stakes and non-threatening – but they provide valid and crucial data about mastery of learning outcomes. This mastery-based approach may also give learners an opportunity to master a specific topic before they move on to the next.

Project-based assessments

The best formative assessments are often project-based as they involve students working on tangible products and ideas, whether it be posters, podcasts, blogs, or research projects. These projects can become evidence of different skills, knowledge, and dispositions and are often evaluated against rubrics. They can also be interdisciplinary by nature.

Multi-modal evidencing of learning

What if assessments were personalized, and learners had the opportunity to evidence their learning in a way that worked best for them?

And what if instead of testing a student’s knowledge on a subject, we measured their ability to use that knowledge to create something new and innovative? Imagine if we evaluated students’ learning based on their unique works of art, film productions, scientific findings, philosophical musings, startup ideas, and performances.

Real-world solutions & Impact

At School of Humanity, we believe that, ultimately, the most powerful indicator of success is the impact that the learner goes on to have on the world.

The most significant indicator of this would be a learner’s ability to solve local and global challenges. Consequently, a curriculum focused on developing this capability would focus on the skills, mindsets, and knowledge required to engage with, investigate and act on pressing issues in our world. This may then be evidenced through a range of learning experiences, from internships to real-world projects.

An example of evidencing learning on our Voyager platform – every learner activity is broken down and listed as evidence of learning.

These alternatives don’t come without challenges

There is no denying that these alternatives come with their challenges, including:

Issues with scalability

Doing project-based and interdisciplinary assessments, while mapping to the curriculum standards requires the right kind of technology. One of the issues with most traditional learning management systems is that they were developed for the traditional and industrial eras. To effectively scale the kinds of assessments outlined in this post, we need the right kind of tech infrastructure and systems.

Challenging existing narratives

Another challenge lies around the narratives many of us still hold about schooling. Many parents, learners, and even schools and universities are not aware of the alternatives to traditional exams/report cards, and their value in today’s world. We have a lot of work to do in terms of raising awareness and changing mindsets.

Lack of global recognition

Despite their drawbacks, one of the values that international board exams provide is international recognition. While the world calls for alternative ways of assessing learning, there is a desperate need for accreditation and credentialing bodies to validate this new model to other stakeholders like universities and governments.

Looking forward: redefining the purpose of schools

Whether we admit it or not, the primary goal of many schools is to prepare their learners for better exam results. The majority of the school day and curricula are focused on teaching the board exam curriculum and optimizing for better results to report to regulators and the world at large.

Instead, we need an education system where the primary goal is to empower learners to find their purpose, creatively express themselves, become wiser humans, and solve the global challenges facing our species. Traditional exams and tests fail to measure or evaluate whether we are meeting this goal.

In order to create an education system that better serves all learners, we will need to expand the ways that we measure learning.

Raya Bidshahri

Founder & CEO, School of Humanity. Award-winning educator, serial entrepreneur and futurist.