Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Public Examinations - Nature and History

The Nature of Public Examinations

Public Examinations are conducted by, or on behalf of the State and open to all those who meet defined entry criteria. Historically they include examinations used to select those wishing to enter government service. Here we focus on exams used to assess students in, or wishing to gain access to, State schools and other educational institutions. Examples include: primary school leaving exams; selective 'transfer' exams (e.g. 11+); secondary school certificate exams; and public exams used for selection to universities (e.g. A-levels, Baccalaureate, Matura). Public Examinations are typically competitive – they bring benefits to those individuals who are successful. This is in contrast to National Assessments which are designed to provide information about a system.

A Brief History

The first written public examinations were introduced over 2000 thousand years ago, in China, to select the most able citizens for positions in the civil service and to reduce the effects of patronage. News of the Chinese system was brought to Europe in the 16th century and the Jesuits incorporated examinations into their schools. Prussia established an exam system for selection to the civil service around the middle of the 18th century, followed by France after the Revolution.

By the middle of the 19th century, competitive examinations had been introduced in Britain and India to select the increasing number of government officials required to service an expanding empire. In 1883, competitive examinations to select personnel for government service in the United States were established in law but were abandoned when Congress failed to make appropriations to continue them. Public examinations in schools have a shorter, but still considerable, history.

The Abitur was introduced as a graduation examination for the classical middle school in 1788 and soon became a qualification examination for university. The Baccalaureate was established in Napoleonic France in 1808 to admit students to the grandes écoles, government service, and the professions. In Britain, London University held its first matriculation examination in 1838. It still conducts school examinations in the UK and around the world. In 1865, the New York Board of Regents conducted the first examinations in NY State schools. Whilst New York

Regents examinations continue to this day, public examinations are not a common feature of schooling in the USA. Western European examination systems spread as the French, British and Dutch empires expanded in the 19th century. Syllabuses and examination papers from the 'home country' were used, usually unchanged, in the colonies. As countries have gained independence over the past fifty or so years, they have taken control of their school examinations. However, the assessment methods, and in some cases the syllabuses, have remained largely unchanged. The European tradition of public examinations for schools can be found in the Caribbean, Africa and South East Asia and the sub-continent.

In the 20th century, America developed a significantly different approach to assessment of students. The most prominent features of this are a strong theoretical base of behavioral measurement (psychometrics) and a heavy reliance on objective and standardized modes of assessment - especially multiple-choice testing. Examination systems built on the American approach can be found in South and Central America, Indonesia and the Philippines.


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