Monday, November 21, 2011

Exams: I Say We Keep 'Em

When the British Columbia Ministry of Education first rolled out the 2004 Graduation Program, I was a brand new vice-principal and I instantly took a dislike to the array of new exam requirements. The hassle (like moving desks) and expense of the new program seemed unnecessary. I also wondered what the point of exams really was for those students who struggled with their learning. Isn’t this just going to make them feel bad?  Aren’t these new hurdles going to get in the way of their graduating? The shift towards being student-centered was still in its earlier phases back then, too. I think it was much more common to place the emphasis back on the student when they were not successful, as in, “Hey, I taught that lesson. What were they doing?”  Reflecting on student learning and revising a lesson to meet students’ needs was not quite so common. You might be thinking, “Hey, I was too doing that.” Good for you if you were.

Furthermore, the 1996 Program had led us to believe that exams were not for everybody. The keeners wrote the bulk of the tests, but they were, well, keen. Students had to write English 12 or Communications 12 and that was it. Even though teachers and principals surely did their best to hold the line on course outcomes and expectations, students could still graduate in BC with very little concrete evidence of learning in their core subjects. There weren’t many rubrics on the Internet or district sessions around building common expectations at that time. Was my A the same as your A?  My C?  My pass? How would we know? I remember hearing some stories about students who went all the way through high school thinking they had an affinity for some area of learning before scoring poorly on a grade 12 exam, but by the time they found out they were already registered in a university or college program only to struggle, an expensive lesson learned too late.

Certainly there was cringing when the first few sets of grade 10 and 11 exam results came back. It was stressful, no doubt exacerbated by the fact there was no “out” on this process. Unless a student's IEP was in the “low incidence” category, they were going to be writing. This encouraged a big shift in emphasis away from focusing what the top tier of students in our school could do toward getting all of our learners, especially the struggling ones, to a point where they could pass. This meant continuous effort from adults and students, new interventions, and new strategies to get them over the hump. Instead of moving struggling students around all of the obstacles, we needed to help them navigate their way though. Students have to pass the exam courses, along with all of the other mandatory courses, and though they do not have to pass the exams to make it through school, it sure helps if they do. Further to that, district and school results now appear on the K-12 Reporting Website for the public to see and scrutinize if they wish, not to mention those people who publish their annual Report Card. The impact of exams courses on student transitions and graduation encourage us make sure that the exam courses are taught effectively, and that the courses leading to them are as well. It sometimes means choosing instructors carefully, even basing the decision on effectiveness instead of teacher preference or seniority. Strong veterans are often moved from their “elite” grade twelve classes to grade ten classes that have heterogeneous mix of students. Exam teachers have had to ramp up their own knowledge of course curriculum and teaching strategies and make sure the students actually learn the outcomes. These issues may have led to the new program being unpopular with some teachers, and certainly with the teacher’s union. However, this change has undeniably made us do a better job of teaching ALL of our kids.  

The time taken up with actual test writing, though a common complaint, is also minimal in this jurisdiction. If you include the FSAs, the total Ministry standardized testing program takes roughly six days of instructional time, not even a third of one percent of total instructional time over twelve years. Averaged out, all of it adds up to less than a minute per day for our students, barely one trip to the water fountain, and is in stark contrast to some American jurisdictions whose students endure that much testing every single year. When it is all in the rear view mirror, we get some data to examine how well we were managing the learning, especially if we make use of the Ministry’s more recent item analysis website which shows our results, outcome by outcome.

I am convinced that the current exam program is BC is right-minded (no pun intended) even if it does have flaws, and there are plenty worth mentioning. Test biases and validity in any standardized exam are just a starting point. Most can also agree our math exams are much too difficult. The sheer number of tested outcomes prevents teachers from providing the necessary contact time students need to process the upper level content in the Foundations stream. The Workplace stream is appropriate for some students, but still too difficult for our struggling learners, and without the soft landing that the Essentials stream provided, the failure rate has been crippling. While I do like the English and Communication exams, the Science 10 and Socials 11 courses also have too many outcomes, and the exams force teachers to plow through material, and again, students do not get the contact time to engage in the kinds of deeper learning that we should value in the school system. With too much rushing and not enough learning, these three courses are great examples of the “knowing-doing gap”. If we know that Assessment for Learning works, why do set up these courses to discourage the use of these excellent strategies? We may also make a case for lost enthusiasm, as long-time teachers often lament having had to cut sections that they are passionate about so they can merely “cover” the material for the upcoming tests. Furthermore, tests don’t seem consistent year to year, or sometimes even from semester to semester, which makes it harder to use them to assess our own classroom practices. Are they getting harder? If this was intentional on the part of the Ministry, it wouldn’t hurt to let us know, so staff and students are not so discouraged. Still, I do not believe that these problems, as compelling as they may be, should cause us to abandon the current exam program, because they are very fixable.

The rollout of the Ministry's new Education Plan brings the perfect opportunity to trim outcomes from the overloaded areas, and provide the needed “whitespace” to allow for the kind of slower, deeper learning that actually sticks. The Math 10, Science 10, and Socials 11 exams could be shortened, and perhaps made more flexible and open-ended to allow students to show their learning in different areas of focus in the course curricula. Do students need to cover geometry and pre-calculus, or would they be better off learning just one of those two really well? Could they choose to write an essay describing their learning process in an inquiry project they did, and do fewer multiple choice questions? A move to a less prescriptive but more skill-based problem-solving approach would be healthier, as would a more consistent set of assessment standards. Like many others in the secondary system, I am hopeful these changes will occur when the next set of revisions come out. 

All that being said, I think it is important that the exams, preferably updated, remain an integral part of the system. The 2004 Graduation Program already allows for a significant choice and personalization, and only twenty credits out of the eighty or more a student must complete come with an exam requirement. Some courses provide a great deal of rigor, and some provide very little, and the amount of required learning students varies wildly. As we move towards an even more flexible and personalized education system that promotes inspiration, communication, teamwork, and interpersonal skills, all of which are difficult to quantify, it would be comforting to know that the core subject areas will stay center stage, and the exams will help ensure the foundation we need in order to comfortably grow the flexibility in our educational programming. 

So, I say let’s keep ‘em.

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