Why can’t we create perfect entrance exams during the Covid-19 period?

Thousands of people are currently going through a nail-biting time. Most university entrance exams will be held at the end of May. For years, the student movement has passionately defended the role of entrance exams in university student selection, and there are many important reasons for this. Entrance exams have been the focus of unusual attention this year and last year, however, as the Covid-19 virus has thrown a spanner in the works of examination organisers. How can organising problem-free entrance exams in the middle of a pandemic be so difficult? Based on the opinions of Twitter influencers at least, there appear to be plenty of easy solutions.

Last year, universities were heavily criticised for not organising entrance exams as in normal years. The Covid-19 virus caught universities preparing for entrance exams by surprise, as a lockdown was declared just a short while before the first exams. In the rush, universities decided to significantly increase matriculation certificate-based admission, as it allowed a larger share of the selections to be made in a way that was safe during the Covid-19 period. Increasing the quota of matriculation certificate-based admissions angered the proponents of entrance exams. What was particularly problematic for applicants was that the change was made in the middle of the application process. For many, the chances of getting admitted based on an entrance exam decreased dramatically during their studying process.

During the first spring of the Covid-19 pandemic, universities decided to organise entrance exams in two stages. The preliminary stage took place in the form of remote tests and the second stage in classrooms. This implementation caused many problems. There were news headlines about suspected cheating, as unsupervised remote tests theoretically gave an opportunity to search for answers on Google, and there was no foolproof way of confirming the identity of the person taking the test without violating domestic peace.  The students’ legal protection was called into question when differences in the scores of the first and second-stage tests could leave a person applying for a school of economics without a university place.

Is this year’s implementation better than last year’s?

This year, universities pledged early to organise classroom exams and listened to student organisations while planning the exams.  Classroom exams ensure the applicants’ equality and legal protection. However, this put applicants who are exposed to the Covid-19 virus or who get ill before or during the exam in a particularly unequal position. The fate of those who end up in quarantine has caused outrage, and many consider the situation to be unfair. The opportunities of applicants to protect themselves from the virus will vary based on factors such as living arrangements and employment situation. Many believe that the social situation is so exceptional that universities should have made special arrangements for those who are under quarantine. The reasoning for this view is easy to understand.

Those under quarantine were in a different position in matriculation exams than in entrance exams

Another kind of answer has also been discovered during this spring to the question of quarantined participants. When organising matriculation exams, high schools were given discretion to decide whether those under quarantine would be allowed to participate. Not nearly every secondary school was able to do this. In places where the opportunity was given, the safety measures taken were extensive and included  measures such as using separate facilities and volunteer supervisors. In matriculation exams also, those who had been quarantined were instructed as a first option to cancel their sign-up and take the exams next time.

Universities had to make the decision about offering participation for quarantined applicants well ahead of time. The decision could not be left to the last minute, and last year’s mistakes of changing admission criteria in the middle of the application process had to be avoided. It is impossible to know in advance what the Covid-19 situation is going to be at the time of the exams, and how many applicants have been placed under quarantine. Special arrangements might have been possible for a handful of people, but if there were hundreds of quarantined applicants the arrangements would be impossible.  Putting applicants in an unequal position at different universities or targets of application is also undesirable. Accessing the location of the exam without putting others at risk would also be difficult. An opportunity to participate remotely or holding the exam a second time would involve massive equality problems. The equal treatment of participants is an important basic principle that should be strictly followed.

The result was a situation similar to a regular spring application period: applicants take the risk of being or not being fit to participate on the day of the examination. Those who are ill or under quarantine will not be able to take the exam.

Putting others at risk is unacceptable

A strict policy of not offering another way to participate has also led to criticism of a different kind. There is a fear that due to the lack of alternatives, applicants will be strongly tempted to arrive at the exam with symptoms and avoid getting a Covid-19 test before it. This will compromise the safety of all exams that are organised in person.

The fear is understandable, as the entrance exam is an important moment in the applicant’s life, and losing the opportunity because of a sore throat might feel unreasonable. This is a question of other people’s safety, however, and putting one year of one’s own life before other people’s health is not acceptable under any circumstances. It would also be unreasonable to demand that universities should plan their exams under the premise that applicants will behave irresponsibly and will not follow instructions. It is also worth remembering that endangering another person’s health on purpose or due to negligence may be a criminal offence. Although it is possible that there will be irresponsible behaviour, it is important to ensure adequate ventilation, safe distances and hygiene at the examination locations. We will soon find out how well the arrangements succeed. 

Remote exams may still be the future

Despite the problems, we should keep an open mind about the future of entrance exams. Exams should not be discarded just because they do not work perfectly; problems should be identified and addressed.  For example, exams increase the pressure to purchase preparation courses and treat people living in different parts of Finland unequally. The need for preparation courses should be decreased, graduation times shortened, and exam questions developed. In an ideal situation, taking an exam would be just as easy from abroad or from sparsely populated parts of Finland as from one of the university cities. In the future, some form of remote implementation may be the best way to organise exams. Before that, however, there are many open questions that need to be resolved regarding things such as the supervision and accessibility of exams.  Despite the difficulties and flaws, student selections in the Covid-19 period can be a learning experience on the path towards perfect exams. 

 

Camilla Saarinen

Board member

Camilla Saarinen
Board Member, education policy, SYL100, organisations and culture

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