BC has been reworking their curriculum for several years, and the latest aspect of that revision is the elimination of subject- or course-based provincial exams as a method of evaluation. The Graduation Program will require students wanting to earn a "Dogwood" Diploma - a regular high school diploma, as opposed to the "Evergreen" that is awarded to students who were on Individualized Education Plans because they could not meet the requirements of the Dogwood due to various learning disabilities, health reasons, or behavioural requirements - to write provincially mandated exams in Math and Literacy. It seems, in effect, that these are exit exams for those two basic skills that, at first glance, do not have connection to a course grade; they are similar to the current requirement that students have to submit a "Graduation Portfolio" that proves that they are ready to graduate that is not marked other than being completed.
The BC Teachers' Federation is in favour of the change, as they see that Provincial Exams have detracted from students' learning, though they are skeptical of the timeline and the budget for the change, as well as the ability of teachers to implement the new curriculum without changes to class size, class composition, and support for students with special needs. Before I give my opinion on the change, let's take a step back and understand how provincial exams worked in BC before this recent shift in philosophy and practice.
A short history of provincial exams in BC
BC has had provincially mandated exams as part of their Secondary Graduation Program (Grade 10 to 12) requirements since 2004. Students had to write three exams in Grade 10: English 10, Science 10, and Math 10 (for either stream - Apprenticeship, the workplace-oriented stream, or Foundations, the academically-oriented stream). Students then had to write a provincial exam for their Grade 11 Social Science class - usually Social Studies 11, but Civic Studies 11 also counted - and their English 12 (or the "workplace" equivalent Communications 12), for a total of five provincially examinable subjects in their three years in the Graduation Program.
Each of the Grade 10 and 11 exams were worth 20 % of a student's final grade, and the English 12 exam was worth 40 % of the grade for the course. The Ministry provided a significant amount of material to prepare students and teachers for the exams: they provided exemplars and answer keys for all previous exams on the Ministry of Education website; they provided lists of terms to know for each exam; and they encouraged schools to engage in professional development to help teachers know how to administer and grade exams.
Until August 2011, Grade 12 students also had the option of writing provincial exams for any subject in Grade 12; the primary purpose for writing these exams was that universities looked at those exam marks for entrance requirement. The participation rate for those exams was accordingly and predictably very low, as well under 20 % of students who took the courses - essentially the same percentage who were considering post-secondary as an immediate option - wrote the exams. The government decided - rightfully so - that the expense associated with running those exams was not worth the investment, so they eliminated them as an option.
Of course, the change was announced shortly before the beginning of the school year without any advance notice or grandfathering the results for students who had already started in the Graduation Program, so any students who might have been looking toward using those exams to bolster or buffer their grades either in Grade 12 or from previous grades (as Grade 10 exam results were looked at by prospective schools) were out of luck; granted, it likely did not affect many students, and even those who were affected were likely more relieved in not having to write an exam in their subject, but the Ministry's actions demonstrated a general lack of care for the students and the process.
My experience with provincial exams
My first teaching job in BC was my first real job in my subject areas of English and Social Studies, and I was understandably nervous in structuring my courses to fit the requirements of the exams. I was told that the Ministry investigated any significant discrepancies between course grades and exam grades, so I had to make sure that my grades were fair and accurate not only by my standards, but according to the students' provincial exam grades as well. I worked diligently not only to ensure that all concepts on the exam were included in the material studied in class, but also to ensure that the exams that I used to assess student progress during the course reflected the types of questions that students would encounter on their provincial exam.
As it turned out, I did not have to worry about my performance with provincial exams as a teacher. In my first exam, all of my students were well within the expected range, and very few students even saw their letter grade change between course work and the exam. I managed to keep that consistency over the three years I taught courses with provincial exams in BC, with a few notable exceptions from students who tried to make up for a semester's worth of slacking and not completing assignments by trying hard on the final exam; math, apparently, was not their strong suit either.
I had one student in particular whose grades were lower on the exam than the course, but her exam marks from the course lined up with her grade on the provincial exam, so I felt that I was justified in her grades. But perhaps I was proudest of another student who required special accommodations to complete English 10. She took the course material one year without being graded before then retaking the course for credit the following year; her grades in the course and on the final were exactly the same at 65 %. As you might expect, I was proud of how I was able to adapt my teaching methods to work within that system, and I remain proud of my success in doing so to this day.
The problems with provincial exams
There were, of course, issues with the administration of provincial exams in BC (apart from the possible differences in pedagogical philosophy and practice, which I will discuss later). After having no provincial exams until Grade 10, students suddenly had three exams to write in their first academically demanding year; though students were given some standardized evaluations to complete in Grade 4 and 7, they had no impact on grades until those first three in Grade 10, so the experience was relatively new and overwhelming for students that had not been significantly challenged in that way throughout their middle school years.
There were other concerns with provincial exams. The times at which the exams could be written were inflexible, so student needs could not be accommodated as easily. There were ways in which students with special needs could receive support - extra time, a scribe, or a reader, for example - but the requirements were fairly diligent on the part of schools to ensure that students had the necessary support. There is also the fact that the nature of the assessment as an exam puts students who experience (test) anxiety at a further disadvantage.
The nature of the exams was more unforgiving, so students who may have had a teacher who was not as diligent in teaching the full curriculum were at an automatic disadvantage. Many teachers complained that having a provincial exam interfered with their autonomy, which seemed to be code for not wanting to teach everything in the curriculum. It was admittedly difficult to fit everything into the allotted time, particularly if your class were more reticent learners, but it was doable with the right planning and execution.
The benefits of provincial exams
There were also benefits to the provincial exams for the students and for the teachers. I greatly appreciated having an external guideline to help me shape my courses and to ensure that I stayed on track with the concepts required for exams. As a teacher in my early years, it was useful to have an exam that could justify the grades that I had given to students as an external standard. And it game a shape and organization to courses (ie. English) that could have otherwise been somewhat amorphous and difficult to organize at times.
Students do benefit from exams as well. They gain experience in a more serious exam context, which will be useful in future educational contexts, as the majority of students will go on to some form of post-secondary education. Provincial exams (at least in theory) mitigate the influence of a teacher who does not pay attention to curriculum, as any teachers who are deviating from the established guidelines should (again, in theory) be discovered.
Exams were carefully designed by a team of professionals, so the questions included should be more fair and equitable than those that one particular teacher might ask. Furthermore, the rubric for grading exams was standardized, and exams were often graded by multiple teachers with experience, so the evaluation that a student received was more likely to be reliable as a result.
There were also benefits for the education system, particularly in a province such as BC that has a fairly diverse cultural and linguistic composition in its school system, as some schools and school divisions have a high number of immigrant non-English-speaking students. Provincial exams ensured that teachers had a reliable method of gauging the progress of a varied student population, and post-secondary institutions could (theoretically) be more confident of the skills of the students entering their system.
Social Studies and English exams
To make these issues and benefits a bit more clear, I can speak specifically to the specific benefits and problems in the exams for the subjects I taught: Social Studies 11, English 10, and English 12. The Social Studies exam was, as you might expect, significantly content-based, whereas the English exams were skill-based. Many of the problems of the Social Studies 11 exam came from the demanding nature of the course, whereas many of the benefits of the English exams came from the freedoms afforded in each course.
The Social Studies 11 exam was particularly problematic, as the course itself was quite heavy. In 120 course hours (which included the hours of writing the exam), teachers had to cover the content of what amounted to three subjects. The first was 20th Century Canadian History, which would not have been as difficult had the students had any previous experience with 20th Century World History; since they had had very little, the understanding of Canada's place in events such as World War I, World War II, and the Cold War necessitated the teaching of the broader worldwide events, even in a limited fashion.
The second was Canadian Government, which is a topic that is large enough to consume an entire course on its own, and the third was a unit on Human Geography that covered Canada's place in the world in terms of issues such as poverty, the environment, and demography, which is again enough for an entire course. It was quite difficult to include all of the necessary content in both the depth and breadth required for understanding, and it made the course and the subsequent exam very taxing on the students.
The exam featured over forty multiple choice questions - which can be problematic as a method of evaluation for several reasons - taken from all of those three required areas of study, as well as two essays that required students to integrate knowledge from throughout the course into a mutli-paragraph composition on a given topic of interest in 20th Century Canadian History - say, the rise of women as a political power or Canada's place as a military power.
The final exam was a behemoth with hundreds of terms to know, including some rather obscure events of which neither I nor two friends who had studied Canadian history at an Honours or Masters level in university (one of whom taught several years of Grade 12 Canadian History in Saskatchewan) were aware before seeing it on a previous year's exam. In another case, a question asked about Canadian astronauts without having indicated that such knowledge would be required on the documentation from the Ministry; it seemed that questions of that ilk were primarily present to create the appropriately-shaped bell curve rather than to accurately reflect students' knowledge of the subject they had studied.
Unlike the Social Studies 11 exam, the English 10 and 12 exams were skill-based. The government did not tell English teachers what pieces to study throughout the course, but rather what concepts to cover through those pieces (literary devices, poetic devices, genres, etc.). The exam featured content of different forms (fiction, non-fiction, poetry) that was thematically interlinked and all new to the students, which removed the pressure from teachers to have to teach certain content for the exam other than the concepts of which students needed to demonstrate understanding.
I still use this model of exams in my English classes now, as I am far more interested in a student's ability to apply their learned skills to a new piece of literature rather than merely reciting what they remember from what they have read (I, after all, have trouble doing that at times, especially several months after the fact, so I do not consider it to be fair to expect students to do something that I could not do.)
My opinion on provincial exams
Although it might seem at first glance that I am opposed to standardized tests as a method of evaluation by the number and scope of the problems I saw in the implementation of provincial exams in BC as opposed to the benefits, I am actually mostly in favour of standardizing exams. Most of the issues I observed were to do with the way in which BC chose to implement the exams, not in the philosophy of having the exams themselves.
I think that skill-based exams make a lot more sense for students and teachers than content-based exams because content-based exams are more difficult to make fair without significantly reducing the testable content. I really appreciated the English 10 and 12 exams in that regard, though I thought that the Social Studies 11 exam was very unfair to the teacher and to the students because of the sheer scope of material that was required from both parties in order to succeed on the exam. I think that Social Studies 11 could have been a much more effective course and exam had there been a reduction of course content and more focus on skill-building such as critical thinking as opposed to content knowledge.
I also think that the fact that students had three exams in their first year of provincial exams was excessively stressful and unnecessary. I would support having fewer exams early on - say, Math and English - with more exams at the Grade 12 level when there is more differentiation of students according to academic inclinations.
I do see some benefits in removing provincial exams from the course grade, though I am disappointed to see that BC chose to remove them altogether rather than trying to fix some of the issues in the system. With that said, their decision no longer affects me directly, so my main concern is with the wider question of standardized exams in my current teaching context in Saskatchewan.
On standardization in Saskatchewan
Saskatchewan, the province in which I was taught and trained to teach and in which I am now teaching, only has provincial "departmental" exams for Grade 12 students under one condition: the teacher of the course is not accredited in the subject to write and administer her own exams. Saskatchewan, as I was told at my Accreditation Seminar last summer, is the only province to use this system, which I think begs the question as to why that is and whether it is, in fact, an effective and pedagogically sound system if we are the only province to still be using it.
To be accredited in their subject, teachers in Math, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and English must have a minimum of two years of teaching experience in their subject, have taken a minimum of university courses in that area, and attend a Seminar every five years to renew their accreditation.
(Each subject area determines the need for accreditation on its own, as I understand it, which is why only certain subjects require Accreditation; History does not, as per the decision of that subject area.) A teacher also needs to be employed by a school board to finalize their accreditation, which is why my accreditation in English remains as "Pending."
I found it interesting, though not surprising, that there was significant dissension amongst the teachers in attendance at the seminar when the topic of standardized tests came up in an exercise. Several teachers were firmly against any imposition of standardized testing, often making the argument that it challenged their autonomy and that what worked for students in one small town would not work for the next.
Saskatchewan, it should be noted, is mostly homogeneous in terms of educational demographic aside from two factors that divide students. The first, and far less pedagogically significant as I see it, is the difference between rural and urban schools, which amounts mainly to the difference in learning style and class composition; it is, in my opinion, easily solved, and not a significant reason to avoid implementing more standardized tests. Many rural schools already incorporate provincial departmental exams into their school life because they have not hired teachers who are accredited, and I don't see the rural/urban divide being that significant in terms of preventing standardization.
The far more significant factor as I see it is the experience of First Nations students, who have statistically much lower graduation rates and struggle much more within the traditional system of education, as compared to non-First Nations students. There has been a real struggle to encourage First Nations students to remain in school, and the Ministry of Education has instituted a goal of a graduation rate of 100 % for all students in Saskatchewan. It is an admirable goal, and judging from my limited experience in the public system this year, a necessary one, though there are some issues with that goal that transcend the racial composition of the student population.
The main problem with the goal of a 100 % graduation rate is that it puts the pressure on the teachers to have to find ways to help the students graduate, rather than on the students to have to graduate, as there is no change in intrinsic or extrinsic motivation for the students to change their performance. Although there are outcomes given in the curriculum that students are supposed to meet (or outdated objectives in our Grade 10-12 History curricula, which have not been updated in over two decades), the outcomes are worded in such a way (especially in English) so as to allow for a vague variety of interpretations as to how they can be met, and there is little standardization of those outcomes; in effect, not every Grade 12 diploma is equal, and a diploma from some schools is worth less than the same diploma from others.
The lack of standardized exams means that, in order to bend the application of outcomes so that students can meet them and graduate, the contents of certain courses are being compromised - particularly the required Grade 12 courses of History 30 (Canadian History), English Language Arts A30 (Canadian Literature), and English Language Arts B30 (World Literature), which happen to be my subject specialties. The Science and Math courses tend not to experience the same problems (from what I can tell), as there is a perception that those subjects are more rigorous in terms of the necessary content; also, the Grade 12 level courses in those subjects are not directly required for graduation, so students who do not want to do the work of those courses can simply avoid taking them.
The implementation of standardized exams would, in theory, make sure that teachers had to ensure that certain skills were taught and practiced, as well as providing an external source of justification for giving certain grades. It would help ensure a more standardized level of understanding for students entering post-secondary - which, according to friends of mine who work in English academia, is a very serious problem for them. It would help teachers structure courses, and it would help students know what they need to know and demonstrate in terms of the outcomes of the course.
I do acknowledge that there are some inherent issues in standardized testing, including the possibility of cultural biases, but I believe that we as teachers can be wise in how we implement these kinds of evaluations. They should be used as tools to assist teachers, and certainly not to rate their performance, and I think that putting limited standardized tests into place would be beneficial for all parties involved in education.
I am not convinced that Saskatchewan's current system of accreditation is effective enough on its own, and I would like to see us moving toward incorporating at least one provincial exam in our English curriculum in addition to continuing to require teachers to be accredited in the subject in order to evaluate Grade 12 courses (perhaps they would be allowed to mark provincial exams on their own if they were accredited, or teach the Grade 12 English course that does not include an exam).
As for the History curriculum, I would like to see Saskatchewan adopt some method of accreditation or standardization for the required Grade 12 Canadian History course, though I acknowledge that such an endeavour would take a lot of effort. Maybe I will have to turn this into a project to complete for a Masters in Curriculum Studies someday. But before I get to that point, the first step will be to update the entire History curriculum so that it does not effectively end with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, because nothing has happened in the world at all in the past twenty-five years. I mean, it's not like the internet has changed anything, right?