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Alberta school boards want province to review diploma exam program

Alberta school trustees say it’s time for the government to review whether the province’s diploma exam program is serving students well.

“It’s important to have assessments in place so that we understand how our students are succeeding and what is the overall performance of our division,” Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) president Marilyn Dennis said in an interview in November. “But is this high-stakes exam the way to have that all happen?”

In November, school trustees from across the province voted in favour of advocating that the education ministry review the diploma exam program to determine whether the exams are fair indicators of student and education system performance.

Introduced in 1984, diploma exams are a required component of 12 different Grade 12 classes.

Anyone graduating with a high school diploma in Alberta must write, at a minimum, two diploma exams – in social studies and English language arts. The original intent was to ensure students were meeting common standards no matter where in the province they went to school.

The tests have evolved over the decades. About 20 years ago, the government began equating the exams, to ensure their difficulty was consistent from one year to the next.

Until 2015, the exams were worth 50 per cent of a student’s final grade in a course, when pressure from ASBA and Alberta teachers nudged the Progressive Conservative government of the day to lower the value to 30 per cent.

A student’s teacher-awarded mark and diploma exam marks are reported separately on high school transcripts, so post-secondary institutions can see how students performed when making admissions decisions.

An Alberta Education spokesperson says the last time the exams were reviewed was as part of a 2009 study on assessment. Spokesperson Jessica Lucenko said in an email the review prompted the province to make the exams more inclusive for students with diverse learning needs, such as doubling the amount of time allotted, when needed.

Although diplomas are part of the department’s $10 million standardized testing budget, Lucenko didn’t have a dollar figure for administering and marking just these exams.

Marilyn Dennis school trustee Calgary ASBA
Marilyn Dennis is president of the Alberta School Boards’ Association and a Calgary school trustee. (Submitted)

ASBA president Dennis says the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of diploma exam testing and weighting raises questions about whether they’re necessary.

Dennis says graduation rates improved during the pandemic when diploma exam sittings were cancelled, made optional, or were worth a lower proportion of a student’s final grade.

The highly controlled standardized tests must be administered at identical dates and times across the province to prevent cheating. A 95-page manual lays out strict rules for how school leaders and staff must handle the materials and run the tests.

Dennis says any review should also consider how the current format is expensive and time-consuming.

Diploma exams an outlier in Canada

Alberta is one of the last Canadian jurisdictions to use a high-stakes graduation exam model.

In September, the Newfoundland and Labrador government announced it would permanently end a similar program, called public exams. The province had paused those exams during the pandemic.

Quebec is the only other province with mandatory provincial high school exams in all academic subjects. Students in the equivalent of Grades 10 write ministerial exams in math, history and science, and Grade 11 equivalent students write English and French language arts exams. They are worth half of the students’ final grades in those years.

Some provinces use provincial exams to test competencies across subjects, or in just one or two subjects. B.C., which has replaced its K-12 curriculum during the last decade, requires Grade 10 students to complete mandatory literacy and numeracy exams, as well as a Grade 12 literacy assessment, to graduate.

Dennis wonders if Alberta students are at a disadvantage when competing for post-secondary admissions with students from other jurisdictions.

“When we have a high-stakes exam once a year, where students really don’t even see their mark until weeks, if not months after the course is over, I’m not sure that supports students in their learning the best way,” she said.

On average, Alberta students fare worse on diploma exams than they do in classroom evaluations.

Alberta education data shows the number of students who teachers mark as reaching an “acceptable” standard in class — meaning, they’re passing — is much higher than the proportion of students who pass the diploma exam in that subject.

Likewise, more students are reaching the standard of excellence, or, earning honours, in their classroom assignments than score honours grades on diploma exams.

Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling says that disparity is because the exams cover “a small sliver” of the knowledge and skills students acquire in a class. Association members believe the exams should be worth 20 per cent of a student’s final grade, not 30 per cent, due to their limitations.

Possible security risks

Schilling says the tests limit students to showing their understanding only through reading and writing, that exams administered digitally prevent students from making notes on texts they read, and that the weighting is unfair to students who are sick or distressed on exam day.

“The world has changed since 1984,” Schilling said. “I used to have hair that I feathered back then, I don’t have that now. And so, we need to look at how the world has changed.”

Schilling supports the idea of a diploma exam program review.

jason schilling, alberta teachers, alberta teachers' association, alberta education, alberta budget, alberta schools
Alberta Teachers’ Association president Jason Schilling says diploma exam results are worth too much of a student’s final mark. (Janet French/CBC )

So does Tim Coates, a former director of diploma exams for the provincial government from 2005 to 2013. He now teaches assessment techniques to future teachers at the University of Alberta.

The 2009 government review of assessment, done during Coates’ tenure, was not a “review in any serious manner” of the diploma exam program, but a broader study of classroom assessment practices and their application to provincial standards, he said.

Coates, who is an advocate of diploma exams as a tool to create common standards, said it would be healthy to revisit the impetus for the tests.

“As long as it’s a balanced and fair review that hears from various stakeholders and is founded to a great degree in some evidence,” Coates said. “Because, it can be a very emotional issue.”

The risk that evolving technologies pose to the security of the exams is another motive to review the program, he said. Students could smuggle in invisible earbuds and have a source feed them information from outside, he said.

“Things that weren’t really imaginable in 1984 have become quite feasible in 2024,” Coates said.

The province is also phasing in computer-based exams using new software, referred to as the “digital assessment platform.”

High schools now have the option of running the written parts of English, French and social studies diploma exams on the digital platform, said Alberta Education’s Lucenko.

A previous digital diploma exam program was plagued with widespread technical failures in 2015, raising questions about the tests’ validity.

In November, Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides told CBC News he’d have to learn more about school trustees’ reasons for wanting a diploma exam review before taking any action.

In a subsequent email statement in December, he said he’s happy to talk to education stakeholders about possible improvements.

“Alberta’s government is committed to provincial, including diploma exams, and international assessments that benchmark Alberta’s education system so we can celebrate success, and better meet the needs of students in the classroom,” his statement said. “Currently, Alberta’s government does not have any immediate plans to re-evaluate use of Diploma exams.”

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