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Posts Tagged ‘Exam Time Stress’

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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