Verity Johnson: Exam results mean more in context of a journey

Students sitting an NCEA exam. Photo / Greg Bowker
Students sitting an NCEA exam. Photo / Greg Bowker

"Verity - are you eating breakfast?"

My mum had a right to be both shocked and afraid. You don't want to meet me in the mornings. Normally I just skip mornings. But today? Oh no.

It was exam results day.

I'm unlucky. Judgment day came early for me because I did International Baccalaureate (IB). But as I type the majority of teenagers are warily eyeing up the week ahead. Because this week is NCEA results week.

In the run up to my results, a number of things went through my mind.

Apart from the vision of my decapitation by my Chemistry teacher, the most recurring thought was this: how much do my exam results matter?

I want to go to university, so I need my course requirements. But apart from that?

Booker T. Washington once said "success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome whilst trying to succeed".

My final grade is just a number, but the process of getting there involved trying, failing, swearing, thinking, retrying, and eventual improvement.

It introduced me to determination, desperation and inspiration - particularly in inventing new expletives.

Isn't this learning experience the most important part of education?

If I tell you I got a C you'd make a polite noise whilst thinking, "huh, average". But if I tell you that I had improved from an F to a C then you think, "wow, that's great!"

Final grades are a reflection of how good you were on one day, at one time, in one place. So if we look at our exam results, or our development, which gives us more for the future? Which shows more about our character?

I'm not saying results are worthless. Only that they are less important than the journey it took to get there.

Plus you have to ask whether exams are an accurate reflection of talent.

What if you're sick? What if you misread the question? What if they ask you questions that haven't come up in the 12 sodding previous exam papers you did for revision?

I received my shoddy English grade on the day I had an article published. I felt like mailing IB a copy.

And this is why exam results can be dangerous.

Let's say you love Geography and get good marks all year but you botch the exam. Should you switch degrees to something you got a better grade in? Should you think you're bad at geography? Should you let others tell you you're bad at it? Of course not.

Years of experience and hard work aren't negated by one exam result. So as long as you can get in with the grade, don't let it persuade you out of following your passion.

Obviously if you want to be an engineer and you still don't get gravity, you might want to reconsider. But if it's just one stuff up? Ignore it. Keep going.

And in five years no one will ask you what you got at NCEA level 3. Not unless they're really stuck for a pick up line.

Your future employer is interested in your degree or technical qualifications. Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells' work in 2002 showed that in today's network society communication and interpersonal skills are intrinsic to employment success. So grades aren't the be all and end all. Results aren't necessarily an intelligence gauge either. Albert Einstein was rejected from the Federal Polytechnic Academy because of his low grades in everything apart from science. Owen Glenn and Richard Branson never even made it to university. I wouldn't call them stupid.

But despite the logic behind the irrelevancy of grades, I know they matter on an emotional level.

Everyone cares; students, parents, teachers, friends. And after all the stress of the exam period, the fastest way to get food flying across the dinner table is to criticise. Or worse, pick through the exam explaining to the person what they should have said.

Please parents, whatever your teenagers get, good, bad, or as expected, just play it cool.

If your teens do well, do the proud parent dance. But don't Facebook your sister and rekindle the "mine's better than yours" argument.

If they do worse than expected, please don't go on about it.

You're upset? Think about how they feel. They worked for this for a year. You just had to feed them.

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