Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Rethinking Provincial Exams

At St. Patrick Regional the Administration team and some staff feel the need to share our concerns about the seeming futility of the Gr. 12 optional exams and the Gr. 10 and 11 mandatory exams. After five years of experiencing these exams in our school, we feel that is time to generate and gather feedback on the efficacy of these exams from high schools across the province. We invite you to read and comment on the following concerns and conclusions. 

Grade 12 Optional Provincial Exams

Based on our experience, students consider the following with regards to sitting Provincial exams:
  • A very small percentage (often less than 5%) of students choose to write these exams 
  • Students must achieve 86% or better in 3 exams in order to win the Provincial Scholarship. (This idea is abandoned when one exam does not go well) 
  • Students sit exams in order to improve a school grade. (Students abandon this idea when they do not do well in school final or they realize that colleges and universities do not consider provincial results. Besides the results which are posted in early August are too late for effective course selection!) 
  • Students do not sit the exam for “the experience”. 
  • Schools schedule teachers to supervise exams, a coordinator to organize, monitor and expedite exams and a space to sit exams. These resources are extremely underused. 
  • The considerable expense involved in generating exams, shipping and handling, marking and reporting is questionable. 
  • Multiple days of learning is sacrificed for exams for a handful of students. 
Some Ideas:
  • Abandon the exams 
  • Reinstate compulsory exams for academic courses (universities and colleges no longer use these results for admission) 
  • Provide e-exams at the Grade 12 level which are administered and graded in-school 
  • Develop one mandatory “exit” exam for each student in the Province that can be written in a student’s Gr. 11 or Gr. 12 year. The exam would be used to determine a student’s overall skills related to various literacy competencies. The exit exam should embrace the ideals of Personalized Learning whereby the “content” area of the exam would be based on student interest and choice. (E.g. Students could produce a piece on non-fiction writing on the exam on a topic of their choice) 
Grade 10 and 11 Exams

Some observations:
  • The Science 10 exam is a catch-all for all students- learning disabled and gifted students sit the same exam. The exam is content heavy. 
  • The English 10 exam is a catch all for all students - learning disabled and gifted students sit the same exam. The exam is loose and subjective. Only multiple-choice is marked by ministry. 
  • Foundations and Pre-Calculus Math 10 is a catch-all for all those students who wish to have credit that transfers to post-secondary leaning. 
  • Social 11 exam forces teachers to stress content over literacy and skills and only multiple choices is marked by ministry. 
  • Students tend to believe that the objective mark from the exam is more authentic than the personalized mark generated through the year. 
  • Students lose confidence in core disciplines at the Grade 10 level. This is particularly true of students who have special learning needs (e.g. The children of new Canadians for whom English is not their mother tongue). These students need the extra two years to master culture and literacy. 
  • Abandon exams and allow schools to focus on literacy and skills in core disciplines from which they will generate independent, personalized exams. 
  • Provide differentiated e-exams at the Grade 10/11 level which are administered and graded in-school 
  • Exit exam at the Gr. 12 level will provide standardized data. 
We believe that the time has come to do a rethink surrounding how and if we deliver Provincial Exams in the Province.

Would like to hear other thoughts as well….

G. Donnici
P. Nannery
J. Bevacqua


  1. As an English 12 teacher, a department head, a summer school administrator, and someone who has marked Provincial exams, this issue resonates with me, and always has. When the grade 12 Provincial exams first became optional, I thought it was a silly idea, for many of the reasons you listed, and to me, the cons outweighed the pros. It seemed like the Ministry was using a band aid to fix a gun shot wound. And were the exams dictated by the demands of post-secondary institutions, or for pedagogical reasons? I like the mandatory English 12 exam, because there is still some semblance of validity in its evaluation. I think all other exams should be abolished (or reinstated as mandatory, if need be).
    When the grade 10 Provincial exams first appeared on the scene, I had an open mind and could see one main benefit: it would "force" students to take the learning more "seriously" and to learn important concepts at a younger age. However, I now think that they simply put more pressure on teachers (especially new teachers, who are often given grade 10 classes to teach); they force many teachers to emphasize content ahead of thematic, engaging and conceptual learning; and a lot of cognitive research suggests many students are simply not mentally ready to take these exams. Plus, the subjectivity of the marking makes the grade 10 exams essentially pointless and borderline invalid.
    Anyway, that's my two cents....I hope a better solution is on the horizon, but I am not holding my breath.

  2. Robin I really appreciate your insightful and thoughtful comments. With all the talk of improving our education system I really believe we need to rethink what our purpose is with regards to Provincial Exams. Not only are the optional exams becoming increasingly redundant, I am becoming more concerned about our Gr. 10 students. For many students, the exams are having an adverse affect on student confidence. Your point on the how these exams impact a teachers delivery of courses is also well taken. As we look to "personalize" education we also need to rethink provincial exams. Thanks again

  3. Provincial Exams don't assess the entire set of PLOs. They are simply an indicator that is consistent across settings. The results may be useful to some people and they may yield some data to indicate where the curriculum needs attention. For the optional exams, these potential uses could be achieved just as reliably and without most of the logistical downsides and relatively little expense through on-line computerized adaptive testing to be taken whenever a student chooses. All that would be required would be a supervised setting such as a computer lab. There is no need for everyone to do it at the same time since every students exam experience is different so the opportunity could be provided every once in a while, perhaps weekly, by making the a computer lab available without little or no disruption to schools. Students could sit at a computer and do any exam they want. You can't even cheat by watching your neighbour! Previous provincial exam items might provide the necessary item bank and thus save start-up costs. Exams provided in this way would be useful for the students themselves as an immediate indicator of their level of achievement in a course, and there would be no reason a student could not take the exam multiple times so why not. The score could be recorded for item analysis but there would be no need for it to be on the transcript unless the student requested that. This might not work equally well in all subjects but I bet it would be quite acceptable in many (for the limited purposes that provincial exams have) and its something to think about anyway!

  4. Johnny,

    You and your team raise some good questions that I'm sure most, if not all schools are wrestling with right now. I don't know that I have an answer to the whole situation because I believe that the provincial exams and any end-of-yr summative exams are only a small piece to much bigger conversation.
    The big conversation is that of personalized learning. Do provincial exams or year-end summative exams fit within the framework of personalized learning? Many definitions of personalized learning exist. In fact, each educator you speak to will probably give a slightly different take on the subject. So, with all of the undefined aspects around personalized learning, I would suggest that periodic demonstrations of learning by students may be more effective than traditional exams. Giving students the chance to demonstrate their learning in a variety of different ways is probably more in line with the notion of personalization than asking them to demonstrate their ability to recall facts.

    I echo your comments about the effects of the compulsory grade 10 exams. Grade 10 is now being viewed as the critical year. I can't recall how many times I have said "if we can just help him/her get through everything in grade 10, then everything opens up for him/her to take courses he/she is interested in." The pressure can be immense for some kids. And for what good reason? After all, how many times in adult life do we have to write 'exams'? As adults, we do need to showcase our learning from time to time but rarely is in the form of an exam.

    This is a great discussion topic you have raised. It's one that requires much more thought and input from a diversity of educators, students and parents.
    In fact, it might be a great session topic for one of the upcoming edcamps!


  5. Greetings,

    Provincial exams are just part of the "test" problem. How many high schools have departmental exams? How many departments get together and decide what to cover, curriculum wise so that there is "consistency" across the grade for students doing Grade 11 Math, Grade 10 Social Studies or ... .

    Even if Provincial exams were eliminated tomorrow, I suspect that many schools would simple replace them with their own "personalized" versions and keep on trucking because:
    - That's what is expected
    - That's what universities "really" want
    - That's what keeps students focused in June
    - They do it with AP & IB courses
    - High ranking (Fraser Institute) schools do it
    - (Your reason here)

    Anyone who thinks that the elimination of Provincial exams is going to magically usher in an era of freedom, openness and personalized learning is dreaming in technicolour.

    It's easy to preach to the converted (I should add this to Chris Wejr's list). It's a lot harder to "convert" non-believing colleagues.

    Any "missionaries" out there :-)

  6. Your exam situation sounds very similar to ours in BC, except we have now given up on the optional 12s. As someone who is very excited about the personalized learning movement in education, I still think some form of provincial testing should hold a place in our system. Our "checkpoints" at grade 4, 7, 10, 11, and 12 take a total of 6.5 days to administer (about .3 of a percent of total instructional time), and though far, far from perfect, they give us a wealth of feedback on student learning and our instructional practices. I wrote about this in more detail in a fairly wordy blog last month. Essentially, some structure is required before you can really have freedom. http://peterjory.blogspot.com/2011/11/exams-i-say-we-keep-em-commentary-on.html
    I like Bruce Bearisto's commentary and suggestion to reduce the sittings, which would help personalize the process, and would like to know more about that. I say keep them (keep 'em) but keep tuning them. PJ