Archive for the ‘Final Examinations’ Category

Mr. Zero to Hero: Alberta Physics teacher Lynden Dorval, May 2012

Suspending Alberta diploma exams in October and November 2020 is understandable in the midst of a global pandemic, but it will have unintended consequences. Replacing exams with sound, reliable, standards-based and replicable alternative forms of summative assessment is a formidable challenge. Taking a longer-term view, it will most likely only exacerbate the gradual and well-documented slide in the province of Alberta’s graduation standards.

While some students and the parents retained the right to write exams, the die is cast and it may also signal the death knell for final exams in a province once hailed for having Canada’s best education system. Eliminating final exams, as demonstrated in my new book The State of the System, has hidden, longer-term consequences, significantly contributing to the ‘big disconnect’ between rising student attainment (i.e., graduation rates and averages) and stagnating or declining achievement.

Critics of exams contend that formal, time-limited assessments cause stress and can affect student well-being. Such claims are disputed by Canadian teen mental health experts, including Stan Kutcher and Yifeng Wei, as well as cognitive scientists like Erin Maloney who cite evidence-based research demonstrating that tests and exams are examples of the “normal stress” deemed essential to healthy human development.

Sound student evaluation is based upon a mix of assessment strategies, including standardized tests and examinations. Testing remains a critical piece, countering more subjective forms of assessment. UK student assessment expert, Daisy Christodoulou, puts it this way: “Tests are inhuman – and that is what is good about them.”

While teacher-made and evaluated assessments appear, on the surface, to be more gentle and fairer than exams, such assessments tend to be more impressionistic, not always reliable, and can produce outcomes less fair to students. They are also laden with potential biases.

A rather extensive 2015 student assessment literature review, conducted by Professor Rob Coe at Durham University, identifies the typical biases. Compared to standardized tests, teacher assessment tends to exhibit biases against exceptional students, specifically those with special needs, challenging behaviour, language difficulties, or personality types different than their teacher. Teacher-marked evaluations also tend to reinforce stereotypes, such as boys are better at math or racialized students underperform in school.

Grade inflation has been an identified and documented concern in high schools since the 1980s, long before the current pandemic education crisis. Two Canadian sociologists, James Cote and Anton Allahar, authors of Ivory Tower Blues (2007), pinpointed the problem of high school students being “given higher grades for less effort” and expecting the same in Ontario universities. One authoritative study, produced at Durham University in the UK, demonstrated that an ‘A’ grade in 2009 was roughly equivalent to a ‘C’ grade in 1980.

What has happened to Alberta high school graduation standards? Back in 2011, Maclean’s magazine ranked Alberta as Canada’s best system of education based upon the performance of its graduating students. With compulsory provincial exams in place in the core subjects, some 20 per cent of Alberta’s Grade 12 students achieved an ‘A’ average, compared to roughly 40 per cent of students across Ontario high schools.

Grading standards in Alberta were demonstrably more rigorous than those in Ontario and other provinces. The University of Calgary’s Dean of Arts described Ontario high schools as being engaged in “an arms race of ‘A’s.’ A 2011 University of Saskatoon admissions study of 12,000 first-year university students’ grades reported that Alberta high school graduates dropped 6.4 percentage points, compared to as much as 19.6 points for those from other provinces. In 2017-18, a leaked University of Waterloo admissions study revealed that the average Ontario student dropped 16 per cent.

“No fail’ and ‘no zero’ student assessment policies proliferated in the early 2000s and most of the resistance stemmed from secondary school teachers, particularly in Alberta. Senior grade subject teachers in Mathematics and Science were in the forefront of the underground battles over teachers’ autonomy in the classroom. Constraining teachers from assigning “zeros’ for incomplete or missing work proved to be the biggest bone of contention.

It flared up in Alberta in May 2012 when Edmonton physics teacher Lynden Dorval, a thirty-three-year veteran with an unblemished teaching record, was suspended, then fired, for continuing to award zeroes, refusing to comply with a change in school assessment policy. It all came to a head when the school board’s computer-generated reports substituted blanks for zeroes. An Alberta tribunal found that Dorval gave students fair warning, and that his methods worked because he had “the best record in the school and perhaps the province for completion rates.” The previously obscure Alberta Physics teacher went from “zero to hero” when he was exonerated, but it proved to be a small victory on the slippery slope to dumbed-down standards.

Grade inflation seeped into Alberta high schools when that province moved away from weighting exams at 50 per cent (to 30 per cent) of the final subject grade. In June 2016, under the new policy, 96 per cent of Math 30-1 students were awarded a passing grade, compared to 71 per cent of those who took the diploma exam, a gap of 25 percentage points. The same pattern was evident in Nova Scotia up until June 2012 when the province eliminated all Grade 12 provincial exams. Since Nova Scotia moved its provincial exams from Grade 12 to Grade 10, that province’s graduation rates have skyrocketed from 88.6 percent to 92.5 percent in 2014–15

While far from perfect, exams do provide not only a more rigorous form of summative assessment, but a fairly reliable benchmark of how students perform across a provincial system. It is, after all, next-to-impossible to establish comparability or assessment benchmarks to assess the alternatives such as uneven and highly idiosyncratic ‘demonstrations of learning.’

The Alberta system, once rated Canada’s best on the basis of its graduation standards, is gradually losing its edge. Suspending the diploma exams in 2020-21 may turn out to be a temporary blip or stand as further evidence of an abandonment of more rigorous graduation standards.

Why did Alberta lose its undisputed status as Canada’s best education system? How important were final exams in solidifying that province’s graduation standards? What is the connection between final diploma exams and two key performance indicators — grade inflation and graduation rates? Why have the universities remained relatively silent while evidence accumulates testifying to the softening of graduation standards?

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The ongoing COVID-19 crisis may be claiming another victim in one of Canada’s leading education provinces – sound, reliable, standards-based and replicable summative student assessment. After thwarting a 2017-18 Learning Province plan to subvert the province’s Grade 3 provincial student assessment and broaden the ‘measures of success,’ the Ontario Doug Ford government and its education authorities appear to be falling into a similar trap.

What’s most unexpected is that the latest lubricant on the slippery slope toward ‘accountability-free’ education may well have been applied in Doug Ford’s Ontario under a government ostensibly committed to ‘back-to-basics’ and ‘measurable standards’ in the K-12 school system.

All K-12 provincial tests, administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) were the first to go, rationalized as a response to the pandemic and its impact upon students, teachers, and families. More recently, Ontario’s education ministry opened the door to cancelling final exams by giving school boards the right to replace exam days with in-class instructional time.

Traditional examinations, the long-established benchmark for assessing student achievement, simply disappeared, for the second assessment cycle in a row, going back to the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak. Major metropolitan school districts, led by the Toronto District School Board, Peel District School Board and their coterminous Catholic boards, jumped in quickly to suspend exams in favour of what were loosely termed “culminating tasks” or “demonstrations of learning.”

Suspending exams was hailed in the Toronto Star news report as ‘a rare bright spot” for Ontario high school students. Elsewhere the decision to eliminate exams, once again, elicited barely a whimper, even from the universities. “Nobody’s missed standardized tests or final exams,” University of Ottawa professor Andy Hargreaves noted rather gleefully during the October 29-30 Canadian EdTech Summit.

Suspending examinations has hidden and longer-term consequences not only for students and teachers, but for what remains of school-system accountability. What’s most surprising, here in Canada, is that such decisions are rarely evidence-informed or predicated on the existence of viable, proven and sustainable alternatives.

Proposing to substitute culminating projects labelled as “demonstrations of learning” is based upon the fallacious assumption that teacher assessments are better than final exams. Cherry-picking a recent sympathetic research study, such as a May 2019 Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry article highlighting exam stress, may satisfy some, but it is no substitute for serious research into the effectiveness of previous competency-based “culminating activity” experiments.

Sound student evaluation is based upon a mix of assessment strategies, ranging from formative (daily interaction and feedback) assessment to standardized tests and examinations (summative assessment). It is highly desirable to base student assessment upon a suitable combination of reasonably objective testing instruments as well as teacher-driven subjective assessment. UK student assessment expert, Daisy Christodoulou, puts it this way: “Tests are inhuman – and that is what is good about them.”

Teacher-made and evaluated assessments appear, on the surface, to be more gentle and fairer than exams, but such assumptions can be misleading, given the weight of research supporting “level playing field” evaluations. The reality is that teacher assessments tend to be more impressionistic, not always reliable, and can produce outcomes less fair to students.

Eliminating provincial tests and examinations puts too much emphasis on teacher assessment, a form of student evaluation with identified biases. A rather extensive 2015 student assessment literature review, conducted by Professor Rob Coe at the Durham University Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, identifies the typical biases. Compared to standardized tests, teacher assessment tends to exhibit biases against exceptional students, specifically those with special needs, challenging behaviour, language difficulties, or personality types different than their teacher. Teacher-marked evaluations also tend to reinforce stereotypes, such as boys are better at math or racialized students underperform in school.

Replacing final exams with teacher-graded ‘exhibitions’ or ‘demonstrations of learning mastery’ sounds attractive, but is fraught with potential problems, judging for their track record since their inception in the late 1980s. Dreamed up by the North American father of Outcome-Based Education, Dr. William Spady, assessing student competencies based upon ‘demonstrations of learning’ have a checkered history. Grappling with the OBE system and its time-consuming measurement of hundreds of competencies finished it off with classroom teachers.

A more successful version of DOLM (Demonstration of Learning Mastery), developed by Deborah Meier, Theodore Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools (1988 -2016), was piloted in small schools with highly-trained teachers. Such exhibitions were far from improvisational but rather “high stakes, standards aligned assessments” which aimed at securing “commitment, engagement and high-level intellectual achievement” and conceived as “a fulcrum for school transformation.” Systemic distrust, aggravated by testing and accountability, Meier conceded, “rendered attempts to create such contexts infertile.”

Constructing summative evaluation models to replace final exams is not easy and it has defeated waves of American assessment reformers. The Kentucky Commonwealth Accountability and Testing System (CATS) 2007-2008, and its predecessor, KRIS (1992-1998) serve as a case in point. Like most of these first generation reforms, the KRIS experiment was widely considered a failure. Its performance-based tools were found to be unreliable, professional development costs too high, and two elements of the program, Mathematics Portfolios and Performance Events, summarily abandoned. Writing portfolios continued under CATS but a 2008 audit revealed wide variations in marking standards and lengthy delays in returning the marked results of open answer questions.

Most of the recent generation of initiatives were sparked by a January 2015 white paper, “Performance Assessments: How State Policy Can Advance Assessments for 21st Century Learning,” produced by two leading American educators, Linda Darling-Hammond and Ace Parsi. Seven American states were granted a waiver under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to experiment with such competency-based assessment alternatives.

Constructing a state model compliant with established national standards in New Hampshire proved to be an insurmountable challenge. While supported by Monty Neill and Fair Test Coalition advocacy forces, New Hampshire’s Performance Assessments for Competency Education (PACE) system ran into significant problems trying to integrate Classroom-Based Evidence (CBE) with state testing criteria and expectations. Establishing evaluation consistency and “comparability” across schools and districts ultimately sunk the experiment. It was anchored in state standards and required external moderation, including re-scoring of classroom-based work. Serving two masters created heavier teacher marking loads and made it unsustainable. Federal funding for such competency-based assessment experiments was cut in December 2019, effectively ending support for that initiative.

Provincial tests and exams exist for a reason and ensure that we do not fly blind into the future.. Replacing final exams with a patchwork solution is not really a wise option this school year. Simply throwing together culminating student activities to replace examinations is, judging from past experiments, most likely a recipe for inconsistency, confusion, and ultimate failure.

Teachers will, as always, do their best and especially so given the current turbulent circumstances. Knowing what we know about student assessment, let’s not pretend that the crisis measures are better than traditional and more rigorous systems that have stood the test of time.

What are the fundamental purposes of summative student assessment? Should provincial tests and final exams be suspended during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic? Where’s the research to support the effectiveness of alternative ‘demonstration of learning’ strategies? Are we now on the slippery slope toward ‘accountability-free’ education?

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Alberta teacher Mike Tachynski, a high school science teacher at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School, is a brave soul.  In late January 2017, he had the courage to speak up publicly about the critical, but largely buried, issue of grade inflation in Canadian high schools.  It was just one more indication that the province of Alberta, once the bastion of higher graduation expectations, was falling more into line with other ‘soft on standards’ provinces.

In the three minutes Tachynski was allotted to address the Edmonton Public Schools elected board, on January 31, 2017, he demonstrated that Alberta was not immune to the disease of grade inflation. Moving away from weighing final exams at 50 per cent of the final Grade 12 subject mark was already contributing to  ‘grade inflation’ leading to irregularities in grades that unfairly favoured some students over others. “Inflated grades create a lose-lose situation,” Tachynski told the board. Students whose teachers are presenting more rigorous challenges may understand the material better, but have a lower grade on their transcript. On the other hand, he said students with ‘artificially high grades’ may flounder when admitted to college and university programs.

The provincial data for June 2016, published in the Edmonton Journal,  supported Tachynski’s claim. Some 96 per cent of students were awarded a passing grade in Math 30-1 by their teachers, but only 71 per cent of those who took the diploma exam passed the test — a gap of 25 percentage points. For Chemistry 30, it was 15 percentage points.  Going back to 2008, the gaps in pass rates between teacher-marks and diploma exam results had grown in five of 12 subjects over the span of nine years.

What’s shocking about Alberta’s slide in standards is that, as recently as November 2011, Maclean’s Magazine had hailed that province as having Canada’s best education system based upon the standards of its graduating students. Based upon a 2011 University of Saskatchewan admission study of 12,000 first-year university student grades, Alberta high school graduates dropped only 6.4 points, compared to as much as 19.6 points for students from other provinces. It was attributed, at the time, to Alberta’s policy of basing 50 per cent of the final grades on diploma exam marks.

Grade inflation has been identified as a major concern since the early 1980s in most school systems in the English-speaking world. In 2009, Durham University in the U.K. studied the phenomenon and concluded that an ‘A’ grade was now roughly equivalent to a ‘C’ grade in 1980. Ten years ago, forty per cent of Ontario high school graduates were leaving with an ‘A’ average, eight times as many as in the more conventional British system. In Alberta at that time, it was only 20 per cent, in large part because of compulsory exams in the core subjects.

Former Alberta school administrator Jim Dueck has recently written about the internal struggle during the early 2000s to maintain the province’s more rigorous standards. “Superintendents were loathe to undertake any action to ameliorate the problem,” he wrote in his 2014 book, Education’s Flashpoints.  “Large-scale testing was contentious and acknowledging the significantly different results was thought to be inflamatory and likely lead to a backlash among union members, which at the time included principals.”

Co-author of the much discussed 2008 book Ivory Tower Blues, James Côté, a Western University sociology professor, insists that grade inflation ultimately hurts students. “It starts in high school. Giving higher grades is one way to reward kids fairly easily, boost their self-esteem and stop them from dropping out,” Côté said. “That’s the mandate our high schools are facing: lowering the dropout rate.” That’s why, he added, 60 per cent of students applying to university had an A average by 2008 and the mark ranges were compressed so much that it had “reached a point of crisis.”

High school grade inflation is now rampant in school systems right across Canada. Out east, the problem was first flagged in a May 2007 AIMS study focusing on the enormous gaps in New Brunswick and Newfoundland/Labrador between assigned class marks and diploma exam marks. In November of 2011, the University of Calgary’s Dean of Arts blew the whistle on the alarming extent of Ontario grade inflation. “There’s an arm’s race of A’s going on, ” he told the Calgary Herald.  Since Nova Scotia moved its provincial exams from Grade 12 to Grade 10 in June 2012, that province’s graduation rates have skyrocketed from 88.6 per cent to 92.5 per cent in 2014-15.

Students are well aware of the impact of high school grade inflation, especially when they take a real hit in their first set of university grades. It is, according to a former President of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, Zane Schwartz, a balloon that’s ready to pop.  “Until there is standardization, ” he wrote in a March 2013 Toronto Globe and Mail opinion column,” high-achieving students will keep being told they’re brilliant, low achieving students will keep getting pushed from grade to grade, and students grades will drop when they reach university.”  We can, he added, do more to “reign in rampant grade inflation and better prepare students for university environment.”  To date, it is my understanding, little has been done to act upon that level-headed student advice.

Why has grade inflation become so rampant in most Canadian high schools?  How much of the pressure for higher marks comes from university-bound students and their parents?  Why have provincial authorities, one after another, either abandoned Grade 12 provincial exams or devalued them in the determination of graduation marks? Is there a graceful way out of the current predicament? 

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