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Student Testing at Breaking Point?

Parents, teachers assail B.C.’s new Grade 10 exams. ‘Pressure is too crazy’ one mom says.

Judith Ince 6 Dec
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Christmas break won’t be nearly so much fun this year for thousands of grade 10 students around the province.  In January, they’ll be the first crop of kids to write provincial exams in three subjects, Math, English, and Science.  And Jenny Campbell, mother of four, thinks this development is absurd.

“The pressure is too crazy,” she says. “The provincial exam grips the household for a good month and a half.  It’s not just an experience that the kids go through, but the families feel it as well.”  She figures the government ought to scrap the exams.

She’s not the only one. The B.C. Teachers Federation (BCTF) is urging members not to mark the exams as a matter of principle.

The Liberals overhauled the graduation requirements two years ago, and expanded provincial exams from grade 12 to grades 10 and 11 as well.  This year’s grade 10 students are the first to write the exams that will affect whether or not they graduate from school.  Students must pass examinable subjects in all three senior grades; exams count for a fifth of the student’s final mark in grade ten, and almost half the grade in the next two years.

‘What’s going on?’

Two of Jenny Campbell’s kids go to Vancouver’s Prince of Wales Secondary.  Nestled in the Arbutus flats between Shaughnessy and Dunbar, the school prides itself on offering a huge range of courses and programs to a cosmopolitan bunch of kids from many different parts of the world.

Campbell says the campaign to get rid of the grade 10 exams began with parents standing around the edges of a soccer field talking about the skyrocketing anxiety levels of kids just starting high school. The prospect of having to write provincial exams in two years seemed to be behind it all.  “A grade 8 worrying about provincials: that’s nuts,” she says.  “We’re going to foster anxiety, and with everything we know about adolescent depression and teenage suicides, what’s going on?”

Campbell sent a letter to Education Minister Tom Christensen on behalf of her PAC in October.  The letter explains that parents’ concerns go well beyond the emotional health of children, and argues that banking so heavily on the results of a single exam will threaten “the vibrancy and vitality of our school’s education.”  According to parents at Campbell’s school, exams test a narrow range of abilities and material.  Training kids to be successful on exams inevitably forces teachers to “teach to the test,” rather than meet the needs of a heterogeneous student population.

Campbell says a preoccupation with exams tells children “what we value in this culture is measurement.  As opposed to learning, discussing, debates, exploration,” she says.  “They’re not learning how to learn in this environment.”

Christensen, however, believes that Grade 10 provincial exams starting in grade 10 are a key part of raising educational standards.  “Our primary objective is to improve performance,” he told The Tyee.

‘Teach to the test’

Jinny Simms, the president of the BCTF dismisses the connection between higher educational achievement and more assessment.  “Let me use a farming analogy.  If you keep weighing a pig, it won’t get any heavier. If you have to feed it to fatten it up.”  But rather than feeding the education system, Simms says, the government has been starving it.  “The government has been cutting all kinds of resources,” she says, causing declines in ESL support, special education, and teacher-librarians.

An American education professor, Gregory Marchant, says there is little evidence that large scale standardized tests have actually delivered on their promise of boosting student achievement.  But there’s mounting evidence to show that students’ long-term prospects and quality of education is actually harmed by them.

In a study presented at the American Society for Research on Adolescence, Marchant considered how students fared on Scholastic Achievement Tests (SAT), depending on whether they went to school in a state with or without graduation exams.  SATs are widely used to determine university admission and are considered to be a key indicator that students have mastered the kinds of skills required to do well in a post-secondary setting.  Marchant and fellow-researcher Sharon Paulson, found that the students who went to school in states without graduation exams scored 34 points higher in Math and English than their less well-tested peers.  What gives?

Marchant says that teachers in states with graduation tests have “tended to teach to the test.  Over the past decade we’ve seen project-based and other kinds of innovative instruction ditched in favour of recitation and rote learning to get results on the tests.”  But to do well on both SATs and at university, students need to have what Marchant refers to as “state of the art instruction,” that stimulates critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving skills.  Teaching to the exam cripples these.

Marchant laughed when he heard B.C. was adopting the same kind of exams that he considers to be so “ill-advised” in the United States.  “I thought you guys up there were smarter than us.  Just look at the objective data, and you’ll see that there’s no bang for the buck.  Pay attention to the research, not the rhetoric,” he says.

Test may hurt grad rates

In Ontario, students have been writing grade 10 exams since they were introduced under the Harris government as part of a package of educational reforms intended to improve student performance.  Last year, the Ontario Ministry of Education hired a team of scholars from Queen’s University to investigate the effect of these reforms.  The results are not encouraging. Dr. Alan King, who chaired the Double-Cohort Study found that the reforms have had one unintended consequence:  a sharp decline in graduation rates, from 78 percent to 62 percent.  Low levels of achievement in grades 9 and 10 “act as a deterrent to student motivation and to subsequent graduation,” the report concludes.

Annie Kidder, the executive director of People for Education a parent-driven advocacy group in Ontario, says the introduction of exams in Ontario “has been a mess. It’s been probably the biggest disaster of all educational reforms that’s happened to kids in high school, and it’s appalling.” 

Catherine Evans, the chair of Point Grey Secondary PAC, worries about the borderline students, and wonders whether they would even bother subjecting themselves to the pressure-cooker environment of a grade-wide exam.  “Grade 10 is a pivotal grade.  Why should we be making it harder to pass Grade 10?”

Evans contends that a student who is barely passing in Grade 10 might go on to turn things around over the next two years.  But failing the three mandatory exams in grade 10 might be enough discouragement to cause marginal students to drop out altogether: there’s no legal requirement for kids to be in school once they turn 16.

Christensen isn’t swayed by these concerns.  He says that if the province merely wanted to keep graduation rates high, its standards could be adjusted downwards.  Instead, it wants to raise them, but to do that, “we have to have some level of measurement of it.”

Questions about grading

Although the government’s Handbook of Procedures for the Graduation Program says provincial exams will ensure that “students meet consistent standards of achievement in academic subjects.”  Parents who want the minister to dump the Grade 10 exams question whether they actually measure such achievement.  Evans says “how is this achieving a provincial consistency when it’s not being graded in a consistent fashion?” 

Grade 10 teachers mark the exams written by their own students.  In contrast, teams of teachers the Ministry of Education hires from around the province mark grade 12 exams.  These teachers don’t mark their own students’ exams, and work together in a conference centre over a period of days, marking the tests based on a set of uniform criteria they are trained to look for in students’ work.  To ensure even greater consistency, the marking is monitored for consistency while teachers are working.

Christensen acknowledged the difference in how the two sets of exams are graded.  But he said consistency is not an issue in the Grade 10 math and science tests, because they are multiple-choice exams.  Nevertheless, “it’s important to have the exams marked by teachers who teach the curriculum,” he told The Tyee.  “It’s important that teachers be involved.”

Jinny Simms isn’t buying the minister’s assurances about consistency--or any other aspect of the Grade 10 exams.  She says teachers “really believe it will harm our most vulnerable—and bright—students, because it narrows the focus.  Parents and teachers know that kids learn best with ongoing authentic assessment.”

Union urges dissent

Marking exams would violate teachers’ ethical and professional principles according to the BCTF.  For this reason, it has urged  its members not to mark them, except under protest.  Christensen says, “The public would say it’s reasonable to mark exams, and my expectation is that the many professional teachers will see this is critical.”

Whatever the outcome of the standoff between teachers and the government, grade 10 students are likely to have visions of exam booklets dancing in their heads over the Christmas holidays.  Exams for kids on a semester system are set for three weeks after classes resume.

Evans wonders if all this additional stress for families and kids is even necessary in the first place.  “What problem is this solving?  What’s so wrong with grade 10 that it needs to be mucked up with these exams?”

Judith Ince is a staff writer for The Tyee with a special focus on education.  [Tyee]

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