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Posts Tagged ‘Lynden Dorval’

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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University of Kentucky student assessment guru Thomas R. Guskey is back on the Canadian Professional Development circuit with a new version of what looks very much like Outcomes-Based Education.  It is clear that he has the ear of the current leadership in the Education Department of Prince Edward Island.  For two days in late November 2018, he dazzled a captive audience of over 200 senior Island school administrators with has stock presentations extolling the virtues of mastery learning and competency-based student assessment.

GuskeyThomasSpeakingP.E. I’s Coordinator of Leadership and Learning Jane Hastelow was effusive in her praise for Guskey and his assessment theories. Tweets by educators emanating from the Guskey sessions parroted the gist of his message. “Students don’t always learn at the same rate or in the same order,” Guskey told the audience. So, why do we teach them in grades, award marks, and promote them in batches?

Grading students and assigning marks, according to Guskey, can have detrimental effects on children. “No research,” he claims, “supports the idea that low grades prompt students to try harder. More often, low grades lead students to withdraw from learning.”

Professional learning, in Guskey’s world, should be focused not on cognitive or knowledge-based learning, but on introducing “mastery learning” as a way of advancing “differentiated instruction” classrooms. “High-quality corrective instruction,” he told P.E.I. educators, is not the same as ‘re-teaching.’” It is actually a means of training teachers to adopt new approaches that “accommodate differences in students’ learning styles, learning modalities, or types of intelligence.”.

Guskey is well-known in North American education as the chief proponent for the elimination of percentage grades.  For more than two decades, in countless PD presentations, he has promoted his own preferred brand of student assessment reform. “It’s time, “ he insists, “ to abandon grading scales that distort the accuracy, objectivity and reliability of students’ grades.”

Up and coming principals and curriculum leads, most without much knowledge of assessment, have proven to be putty in his hands. If so, what’s the problem?   Simply put, Dr. Guskey’s theories, when translated into student evaluation policy and reporting, generate resistance among engaged parents looking for something completely different – clearer, understandable, jargon-free student reports with real marks. Classroom teachers soon come to realize that the new strategies and rubrics are far more complicated and time-consuming, often leaving them buried in additional workload.

Guskey’s student assessment theories do appeal to school administrators who espouse progressive educational principles. He specializes in promoting competency-based education grafted onto student-centred pedagogy or teaching methods.

Most regular teachers today are only too familiar with top-down reform designed to promote “assessment for learning” (AfL) and see, first hand, how it has led to the steady erosion of teacher autonomy in the classroom.

While AfL is a sound assessment philosophy, pioneered by the leading U.K. researcher Dylan Wiliam since the mid-1990s, it has proven difficult to implement. Good ideas can become discredited by poor implementation, especially when formative assessment becomes just another vehicle for a new generation of summative assessment used to validate standards.

Education leaders entranced by Guskey’s theories rarely delve into where it all leads for classroom teachers.  In Canada, it took the “no zeros” controversy sparked in May 2012 by Alberta teacher Lynden Dorval to bring the whole dispute into sharper relief. As a veteran high school Physics teacher, Dorval resisted his Edmonton high school’s policy which prevented him from assigning zeros when students, after repeated reminders, failed to produce assignments or appear for make-up tests.

Teachers running smack up against such policies learn that the ‘research’ supporting “no zeros” policy can be traced back to an October 2004 Thomas Guskey article in the Principal Leadership magazine entitled “Zero Alternatives.”

Manitoba social studies teacher Michael Zwaagstra analyzed Guskey’s research and found it wanting.  His claim that awarding zeros was a questionable practice rested on a single 20-year-old opinion-based presentation by an Oregon English teacher to the 1993 National Middle School conference. Guskey’s subsequent books either repeat that reference or simply restate his hypothesis as an incontestable truth.

SpadyWilliamOBEGuskey’s theories are certainly not new. Much of the research dates back to the early 1990s and the work of William Spady, a Mastery Learning theorist known as the prime architect of the ill-fated Outcomes-Based Education (OBE) movement.  OBE was best exemplified by the infamous mind-boggling systematized report cards loaded with hundreds of learning outcomes, and it capsized in in the early 2000s. in the wake of a storm of public and professional opposition in Pennsylvania and a number of other states.

The litmus test for education reform initiatives is now set at a rather low bar – “do no harm” to teachers or students.  What Thomas Guskey is spouting begs for more serious investigation. One red flag is his continued reference to “learning styles” and “multiple intelligences,” two concepts that do not exist and are now considered abandoned theories.

Guskey’s student assessment theories fly mostly in the face of the weight of recent research, including that of Dylan Wiliam.  Much of the best research is synthesized in Daisy Christodoulou’s 2014 book, Making Good Progress. Such initiatives float on unproven theories, lack supporting evidence-based research, chip away at teacher autonomy, and leave classroom practitioners snowed under with heavier ‘new age’ marking loads.

A word to the wise for  P.E.I. Education leadership – look closely before you leap. Take a closer look at the latest research on teacher-driven student assessment and why OBE was rejected twenty years ago by classroom teachers and legions of skeptical parents.

What’s really new about Dr. Thomas Guskey’s latest project known as Competency-Based Assessment? What is its appeal for classroom teachers concerned about time-consuming, labour-intensive assessment schemes?  Will engaged and informed parents ever accept the elimination of student grades? Where’s the evidence-based research to support changes based upon such untested theories? 

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