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Posts Tagged ‘testing’

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As I read the media reports of the 2015 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results I could almost feel the media’s disappointment.  Of the 72 countries and jurisdictions around the world participating, students in British Columbia were the highest performing in reading, 2nd highest in science and 6th in math.  The results are outstanding.  And this is no small test – over 500,000 15-year-old students participated around the world including more than 20,000 in Canada.  Of course, good news just doesn’t make “news” like bad news.  There are far more people who seem to enjoy a “Students Struggle with Reading” headline, rather than a “Local Students Top Readers in the World” headline. (See full Canadian results here).

I dedicate dozens of posts each year on this blog to talking about the need to do things differently.  And results like those from PISA do not change the need or urgency.  They do remind us in British Columbia (and all across Canada) we are improving from a place of strength.  We have an exemplary education system that is not satisfied with the status quo and we want to be sure that as the world continues to change, our curriculum, assessment and programs continue to adapt to ensure our relevance.

I have written about PISA two times before (when both the 2009 and 2012 results were released – and I still hold to these commentaries).  Beyond the high-level numbers the power of PISA is that there is a lot of data that helps tell a more complete story.  I find the most useful information are deeper in the report below the silly “who won” conversation.  From first look, one sees that there is a very small gender gap in science in Canada, for example, and overall the level of equity (the difference between the highest and lowest scores) is better (more equitable) in Canada than elsewhere.  As I said in my comments three years ago, when asked about PISA – “It is what it is”.  It is one part of the education story, but when governments invest billions of dollars into education, it is a powerful tool to help see we are doing some things right.

I am also left thinking about Finland today.  Like many others, I have visited Finland to learn about what they have done to develop such a strong education system.  And just what first attracted me to Finland?  Well, it was their PISA scores.  The same PISA scores that today indicate the world has a lot to learn from Canada and British Columbia. The same PISA scores that remind me that we can learn a lot in British Columbia from colleagues in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and truly across the country.  The same PISA scores that remind me as Superintendent in West Vancouver, there is a lot we can learn from Surrey, Victoria and Bulkley Valley.

Of course we have many areas in British Columbia we can improve – it is forever the nature of education.  We need to continue to work to improve our Aboriginal graduation rates, and support all learners in our classrooms.  There is a danger that a report like this can suggest we tick the education box in our society and stop investing – we need to do the opposite and continue to invest in public education in British Columbia so we grow from this position of strength.  And yes, PISA is just one measure – we know there are so many factors beyond tests like these that we need to track to ensure our students are strong academic performers and capable citizens (and yes, there are many thoughtful critics of PISA).

But let’s leave the other conversations for another day – today is a day to recognize the system we have – and it is damn good!  All of us who have children in BC’s schools, and all of us who work in BC schools should be very proud.

OK, that is more self-congratulating than most of us Canadians are used to – let’s get back to work!

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final-exam

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.

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