Failing exams gloriously, son? No sweat!

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My 12-year-old son C gloriously failed his mid-year exams over six weeks ago. Just like he did last year and the year before. But guess what? I’m ok about it. After all, let’s face it. Nobody likes exams. At least nobody I’m acquainted with.

I know I’m supposed to encourage my kids not to dislike or fear exams. To embrace exams as opportunities to show what they have successfully mastered over the course of the academic calendar. To “spin” exams positively so that over time, my kids aren’t adverse to them.


But what if a kid fails exams consistently and gloriously, but remains, like C, happy and seemingly oblivious to the implications of failing (such as fewer school and job options in the future, trouble supporting oneself in adulthood with limited, certified skillsets and reduced status/acceptance in society just to name a few of the more “materially” consequential implications)?

Failing exams consistently and gloriously

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Touting the merits of exams is not an issue for me as an educator. Nor when it comes to my firstborn J. I don’t even recall needing to tout at all. J’s 14 now, so he’s already an exam “veteran” since kids here start taking exams from around the age of nine.

Plus, J has the personality of a cool cat. I rarely see him fazed by schoolwork and the demands that come with preparing for exams.

Not so for C, my youngest with autism.

Even though he attends a special needs school, where he receives care and guidance from specially-trained teachers through the whole exam rigmarole since 2021, C still doesn’t take to it well. In fact, he manages to fail all the time, and “gloriously” too! By that I mean he consistently scores well below 40% overall, for every single one of his three examinable subjects – English, Math, and Science.

Yet somehow, he manages to remain buoyant and unperturbed, carrying on living blissfully, as though getting bad results is getting occasionally caught in a sudden downpour. One dry towel and he’s good again!

Displaying so nonchalant an attitude as C does, what’s a parent to do?!

The merits of pen-and-paper tests and exams

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The majority of the world’s educational institutions assess students via paper-and-pen tests (PPT). This method to assess learning is accepted and mostly unquestioned for centuries. This is still true today, despite the Covid pandemic that forced alternate assessment methods like online testing to rise to prominence.

To be fair, there are merits to PPT.

PPT forces students to focus on one single task at a time. The ability to stay focused is more critical now than ever before, thanks to distracting smartphones and all manner of modern technology. And who can argue against the merits of a focused and undistracted mind, right?

Also, PPT allows assessors to determine if students have achieved deep learning and recall. And it goes without saying the discipline to stay seated at a table for long stretches of time (I recall sitting four hours for some of my postgrad exams a decade ago!), also builds grit, resilience, and tenacity.

But really, are these alone sufficient reasons to put EVERY SINGLE human being on earth through the same method of assessment? As though there weren’t other ways to test someone?

And what if that human being has special needs that inhibit him/her from meeting the challenges of a PPT? A human being like, say, my son C?

My son’s challenges with tests and exams

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In C’s school, there are teachers or teaching assistants assigned to students who need help with writing during exams. They are called scribes.

Due to poor fine motor skills, C’s writing is often illegible, and he rarely leaves appropriate gaps between letters, words, and sentences. These issues adversely affect his ability to perform well in PPT with short answer questions and problem sums.

C and his scribe would sit in a separate room from the rest of the class during exams. There, C would dictate his answers and the scribe would write them down in the answer booklet. The scribe was not to offer any other form of help or even guidance. For instance, during his math exams last month, C overlooked to complete two pages of questions. The scribe did nothing to warn him.

When C’s exam results were released, we saw comments from his scribe that gave us a “fly-on-the-wall” view inside the exam room. The comments included the following:
– easily distracted
– doesn’t follow instructions; for example, opening the exam booklet before being told to
– stands up a few times during exams for no reason
– requires visual reminders in the form of signs that read “Quiet” or “Focus”
– always in a rush to finish the exams without reading questions carefully

– goes to the toilet frequently
– chatting, singing, and even asking the scribe random questions like “Will it rain today?” as soon as he’s done dictating

So I ask again: what’s a parent to do?! I don’t know.

But what I do know is that on the day the exam results were released, two weeks before the start of the month-long June school holidays, C’s form teacher Mr. Jon pulled me aside for a quick chat as I fetched C home. He wanted to explain C’s poor performance, especially in Science, which Mr. Jon teaches.

“It’s okay Teach. He won’t fail forever.”

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C’s daddy, I have to let you know some reasons why C failed Science.

Sure, I replied, a little apprehensively.

C doesn’t read the exam questions carefully. He rushes through and picks his answers at random, especially with multiple-choice and True/False questions. Also, C is very linear and literal in his thinking. As long as questions are phrased creatively or differently from practice questions in class, he will usually give the wrong answers.

I nodded in comprehension, for I too have a similar experience when coaching C through his homework.

How is he in class throughout the term Mr. Jon? Do you find him struggling with the concepts taught? I asked.

No replied Mr. Jon. As a matter of fact, C’s always one of the first to verbalize answers in my class, and he’s usually correct. It’s just that his knowledge doesn’t transfer onto paper as fluently.

Ahhh…I sighed. It’s the system isn’t it Mr. Jon? So long as pen-and-paper tests remain the core tenet of assessing a student’s learning in our country, kids like my son will always fail gloriously, right?

Mr. Jon smiled non-committally.

Well, you know what Mr. Jon? I went on to say. As incredible as it may sound, I’m okay he’s failing gloriously. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, it was reported in the news that life expectancy worldwide will rise to 100. So what’s the hurry for C to master these PPT? Let him master these tests in his own time, even as we do what we can to coach him. So I’m okay he’s failing now. He won’t fail forever, of that I’m sure.

More importantly, we both know these standardized PPT and their results don’t reflect C’s true capabilities.

Mr. Jon looked at me like I was some Zen Master, and for a split second, I thought he was about to stretch out his hand to shake mine.

Looking back on that day now, I can’t help but ask myself…

“…how did I reach this “Zen” point of acceptance?”

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Honestly, I don’t know the answer to that question.

Maybe it’s because the alternatives would be unpalatable.

“Hot-house” C with endless tuition to help him pass his exams? Force him to forego more playtime? Institute more revision time? But to what end?

Frankly, none of these look appealing from my current standpoint. Our relationship might even be the poorer for it, if C ends up viewing me as some tyrannical ruler hell-bent on enslaving him in perpetual academic purgatory.

I would much rather be the parent who takes C’s unique developmental timeline in my stride. To believe in C, and let him bloom when his time comes. To better spend our time fostering strong father-son bonds that will anchor his identity and sense of self-worth, long after I’m gone.

So, failing exams gloriously, son? No sweat! We’ll just press on and keep trying.

Just never forget that your daddy loves you, no matter what.

2 thoughts on “Failing exams gloriously, son? No sweat!

  1. Aww, what a kind post, one that makes me think about what kind of father I’ll be (as per your other parenting posts). The thing about exams is that I’m starting to feel like they’re turning outdated, that the traditional education system is slowly turning into a fossil. I’ve never been one for school (never completed Form 5), but always saw myself as an idiot for doing so. Now I realise that I just wasn’t in the right place to learn. Anyway, great on you for being such a supportive dad!

    1. It’s a non-stop learning journey when it comes to parenting. You’ll know what I mean when your turn comes. Thanks always for popping by. Grateful for your support.

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