Changes in structure gives one an opportunity to step back and take a look at usual practices. Last year, almost all Grade 12, Provincial Final Exams were eliminated. These exams, which at one point were worth 50 per cent of students’ final marks, were offered in courses from Chemistry to Spanish to Geography. With changing requirements from universities, a government policy decision to make the exams optional (among other reasons) the exams were poorly attended, and then eliminated. At this point, most students will take five government program exams in their high school career: three in Grade 10 worth 20 per cent of their final grade (English, Science, Math); one in Grade 11 also worth 20 per cent of their final grade (Social Studies), and one in Grade 12 worth 40 per cent of their final grade (English). There are a few other options for students, but this is a fairly common pattern.
As a History 12 teacher, I regularly complained about the Grade 12, Provincial Final Exams. The History 12 exam was not a terrible exam. It had some opportunities for students to analyze documents, identify bias and think critically, but it was also quite focussed on content. With a final exam focussed on coverage and facts, my class was (at least, on some days) a bit of a race to get through all of the required content. I would have liked to go into deeper discussion in some areas and allowing students to explore more areas of interest. So, one day it was Korea, and the next day was Vietnam, and then it was Ping-Pong Diplomacy.
The elimination of these mandatory exams, which so many of us championed, has been met with a variety of responses. I regularly hear from teachers, who love the new-found “freedom”, who do not feel burdened by the final exam and are creating more inquiry projects, presentations, deep research opportunities they felt were limited with the content-based final exam. It is not that content is not important, it is just it is not the only thing that is important. In terms of transferable skills for other courses and other life experiences, the skills of being able to analyze a historical document seem to trump the date of the start of the Suez Crisis (before you Google it, it was October 1956).
This said, another reaction has been to replace the ministry exams with school-based exams to “fill the void.” And with all this as background, we get to the real topic of the post — are we moving to a post-standardized system in education that should lead to the elimination of the traditional “final exam” for most courses in secondary school?
While there are exceptions, in most schools and in most districts across the province, most academic courses have a summative final exam from grade 8 to 12.
The elimination of the Provincial Final Exam has also brought about some new interchanges – it has set a new model that final exams may not be the best way to assess performance at the end of the year, and has also led to the scaling back of “exam timetables” — the time required for doing exams is being recaptured by instructional time. With more days in class and fewer exams at the end of June this leads to a lot of questions about what to do.
Some reasons (I have heard) for the continuation of final exams:
- they are an important part of many college and university programs; so the practice of exams in high school is important
- they help to instill good work and study habits in students
- work authenticity — in an era when cheating (or at least the suspicion of cheating) is high — everyone in the room at one time makes cheating almost impossible
- exams are a common test that everyone in a class, school, district or province can take to ensure there is a common measure of comparison
- by having exams at the end of the school year, this ensures students will stay focussed until course end, and not fade out in June
- their elimination is another example of coddling students and the weakening of standards in our education system
- they keep teachers honest — ensuring they cover the entire curriculum so students are fully prepared to write their final exams
Some reasons (I have heard) for the elimination of final exams:
- they often test superficial content and the multiple choice formats lend themselves more to trivia than a reflection of learning
- there are a number of other more authentic ways to determine what students have learned — such as portfolios
- those who excel at them are those who are best at memorization and regurgitation — two skills not widely seen as part of 21st century learning
- if we are truly moving from a “sorting system” to a “learning system” do we need to continue with standardized final exams for students?
- there is no feedback mechanism for students to understand their mistakes and learn from them
- they create an amazing level of stress, anxiety, and create a high stakes experience for students not necessary or conducive to learning
- they are actually very difficult to properly construct; they often don’t allow high-end students to push their thinking and are more about “gotcha” not learning, and there are many examples of poorly-created final exams
- by removing them, it forces us to have new conversations about learning, about what students know, how we know it, and how to demonstrate it
Just because we “have always done it,” is not a good enough reason to continue. And when there are external changes that force a second look, it is a great opportunity to see if the reasons bear out.
My general view is there are far richer ways to have students demonstrate their learning than a two-hour, scantron-heavy test. My answer is also slightly nuanced, recognizing that math may lend itself more appropriately to a final exam than English or Social Studies. If the exam period was to disappear tomorrow, and we were forced to find other ways to account for student learning, we would likely come up with some very powerful and effective models. I agree with the current BC Teachers Federation advertisement that we should be working towards “more authentic means of assessment.”
I look forward to this discussion.