A Lament for the Provincial Exams

I’ll be honest: I’m a dinosaur.

Or at least that’s what I’m labeled by the progressives who make so much noise in the field of education. To them, teachers like me are throwbacks, anachronisms, conservative reactionaries, Sisypheans who roll the rock of futility up (and, like me, over) the hill. I also suspect we might be targets if “21st century learning” becomes more than just a fad.

All of this I’ve learned to live with. I’ve learned to live with the disconcerting discrepancy between my larger political views (as a social democrat) and a teacher-centered education philosophy that is championed by right-wing think tanks and American anti-labour education reformers. I’m still figuring out how a teacher-centered approach is necessarily conservative – Why would they want to empower teachers? – but that’s how things have developed in the last few decades. In any case, I carry on as a teacher who’s embraced education and technology and created student-centered lesson plans, but who also believes that 21st century learning is unlikely to gain wide adoption (and might also be a con job).

So what does this have to do with provincial exams? Well, two weeks ago the B.C. government announced that the optional Grade 12 academic exams would no longer be offeredThis was the final stage of a multi-year plan to phase out the Grade 12 “provincials”: first they were made optional for graduation, then they became optional for university entrance, and then they withered into irrelevancy as nobody wrote them. Though many progressives (especially in the Twittersphere) have welcomed the official demise of the exams, I am saddened by their passing. To me, the Grade 12 exams were an important bastion of education standards; their loss is a loss for all of us who believe that intellectual criteria and academic rigour are more important than the current reductive obsession of modern education, high school completion. As a dinosaur with lots of fight left, I offer the following as specific reasons for lamenting the loss of the provincials:

  • They were good exams – I have taught three courses that featured provincial exams: History 12, English 12 and English Literature 12. Over the decades, these provincial exams were written, marked and updated with the help of hundreds of teachers throughout the province. Not only was this an excellent form of professional development, but it also led to well-written and balanced assessments that accurately reflected what was going on in the classroom. I firmly believe that these exams, especially History 12 and English Literature 12, were excellent forms of assessment. They combined reading, writing, critical thinking and content in a very effective manner. They included balanced multiple choice questions, paragraphs, essays, and primary document analyses. [History 12, for example, included a conceptual essay, three paragraphs, and multiple written responses to primary sources. Combined, these were worth more than the multiple choice.] Were they perfect? Of course not. But they were probably the highest quality assessment that students would encounter in their schooling. So I had no problem “teaching to the test”, because if my students did well on the exams, they had clearly learned a great deal about the particular discipline. It is therefore lamentable that the exam for English 12 (arguably the least rigourous of the three courses) is the only one that remains.
    • I think the current Grade 10 (science, math and English) and 11 (social studies) provincial exams, worth 20% of the course mark, have yet to find their “balance”, though they may in the future. Their focus on multiple choice questions, a notable lack of exemplars, and the absence of widespread teacher input remain their greatest weaknesses. And I wonder if it makes any sense to move the pressure from Grade 12 to Grade 11 and 10.
  • They were a hedge against grade inflation and lower standards: It already started to happen once the exams became a voluntary part of high school graduation, and especially once they were no longer a mandatory part of university entrance. Now the pressure on teachers to inflate grades, and to reduce the demands of these “exam” courses, is palpable. I can offer no definitive evidence, but I’ve received an overwhelming amount of anecdotal feedback from high school teachers and university professors that these problems have greatly intensified. As both a high school teacher and a sessional university instructor, I can tell you that this is my own experience, too. In History 12, for example, I’ve started teaching students (mostly males) who, in the past, would not have taken the course. I’m all for inclusion, but these same new students are angry – quite literally, outraged – that they have to write so many essays (four) in the course.* They don’t like writing essays, and they’re not going to university, so why should they write essays??? Some of the recent emails I’ve received from students (and their parents) would amaze you. At this point, I’m still holding the fort. I’m stubborn, and I still perceive the course as university preparation. But time will tell if I wilt… like other teachers who have admitted to such pressure.
  • They assessed something valuable and stable – The exams were a stark reminder of something we seem to be forgetting: content matters. I’m sorry, I know I’m going to offend some people, but the idea that content doesn’t matter is utter twaddle. I’m shocked by how many times I have heard the argument, especially from administrators and education “experts”. The Premier’s Technology Council explains this point of view quite succinctly: “The system must place greater emphasis on the learning of skills over the learning of content. The content relevant to a student’s interests is constantly changing and growing so students will have to continue learning new things throughout their life. Instruction should more consistently focus on the skills required to find and use relevant content rather than on the delivery of pre-determined content.” Let’s think about this. I have no doubt that much information and data has changed and will change over the coming years. But have the classics of English Literature changed greatly? Are the techniques of rhetoric, argumentation and grammar suddenly different? Are the histories of Fascist Italy and Germany, or any history for that matter, merely random and subjective? Are the elements of Confederation or the Constitution Act (1982) so unstable as to be worthless fields of study? How about biology, physics and chemistry? Have the contents of these disciplines changed so drastically in the last few decades that we should just Google them when needed? As an educator, I see myself as a guardian (and interpreter) of something incredibly valuable: a rich cultural and intellectual inheritance that we all share as Canadians and global citizens. Of course, this legacy can change and evolve, but this evolution is usually fairly slow; the topics above are not “constantly changing”. And before they do, this legacy not only defines us as citizens, but also allows us to have a common conversation; if we only allow for “content relevant to a student’s interests”, are we not encouraging a highly fragmented society in which pop culture is the only thing we have in common?

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  • Important skills were taught, within a necessary realm of content -I find the distinction between skills and content fairly juvenile. Yes, they are conceptually distinct, but any experienced teacher knows that skills are taught within a particular realm of content. Knowledge, as I see it, is the exercise of intellectual skills within a field of study. In the three courses above, for example, detecting bias was (and is) an extremely important skill. So how do we teach students this skill? To begin with, we examine content and compare it to other content. So students need to “know their stuff” before critical comparisons and detection of differences can illuminate potential bias. You need to think critically about something. Or, as the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham reminds us, ” The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of thought (that is, domain knowledge).” It also helps to have a common knowledge base, so dialogue between learners can have meaningful points of reference.
  • They built confidence – In an age where a student’s self-esteem appears to be based on endless praise and the avoidance of failure, the old provincial exams built confidence in the time-honoured manner: students earned it. The exams, and the courses designed to prepare students for the exams, were challenging and demanding, just like real life. The exams were worth a significant percentage – 40%. Nevertheless, for students with decent academic skills and a good work ethic, the exams were entirely reasonable. It was a privilege to work hard for students who themselves were working hard, because they realized there was no substitute for a good effort. We didn’t have lots of fun, but we did have a great degree of satisfaction. And, at the end of the year, the students’ sense of satisfaction from a job well done was an incredibly rewarding experience for me. I knew they had the knowledge and the confidence to move to the next phase of their lives.

There are probably other reasons to lament (or celebrate) the demise of the Grade 12 exams, so I’d like to hear your thoughts.

-Colin Welch

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*These are the same kind of students who are now angry that they have to read – gasp – 3 chapters a week in my 1st year political science classes.
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18 Comments to "A Lament for the Provincial Exams"

  1. Marina Chugunova's Gravatar Marina Chugunova
    August 31, 2011 - 2:53 pm | Permalink

    I consider canceling Provincials a real tragedy, which will bring lost lasting consequences for the students in the first place, but also for the economy. Our students will compete at the university level with the same success as Nigerian team in winter sports: a lot of carriage but not enough skills and knowledge in the subject.
    Here comes another innovation: so many teachers are refusing to teach with the textbooks. They say: it is easier without, we give students our notes.
    Where is the limit of cutting off real education for the students?
    There is more and more big words about modern education, and less and less real knowledge and skills.
    It is so sad to watch parents and students marching happily with their fake grades onto nowhere!
    Universities will enroll them, take money, and spit them out on the second or third year, or very possible, many of those students will stuck on high-school level courses, but now they are going to pay for it.
    Sorry, for too many words, but it is very painful to listen again and again to unsuccessful students, surprised and demolished by requirements of the reality, they all say : I had “A” in Physics, what happened?
    Nothing, dear, the system lied to you for 11 years and you don’t have enough education to fulfil your dreams. Game over.
    I

  2. Jaime luz's Gravatar Jaime luz
    September 6, 2011 - 2:19 pm | Permalink

    I was a Teaching Assistant for a few years at University in the faculty of science.
    Every year I would see a new crop of kids come in who were sure they had the world by the tail because of high marks in highs school.
    It was not uncommon to see them fail mid terms because they were just not ready. And many would not return for a 2nd year.
    It was sad. And then to see the high schools many times fighting to lower the bar.

  3. Kanis's Gravatar Kanis
    September 6, 2011 - 8:05 pm | Permalink

    I wholeheartedly agree with all your points. I felt that the History 12 provincial was a well written exam. Sadly, I think we all saw this coming when the exams were made “optional”.

  4. Heartlands's Gravatar Heartlands
    September 6, 2011 - 8:58 pm | Permalink

    I am a Chemistry 12 teacher from the interior. I remember that when I first entered the profession from university, I was against the provincial exam. Even though I had a degree, I was not familiar enough with the curriculum to really deal with it.

    As I became more experienced, I started to see the big picture. Many of my students have since come back from university and told me how much easier they found first year chemistry as a result of what I had taught them. I (and of course they) owe this, almost in full, to the rigors of the provincial exam.

    Now in the middle of my career, I realize how glad I am to have been “raised” as a teacher on the culture of a provincial/standard exam. I will not let go of the standards that the exam has made me aspire to. I will always believe that an important part of being a grade 12 teacher is to make sure that my students are ready for their first year of university. It would be a great disservice to them if I take my role lightly. I firmly believe that the place and time for this is grade 12 NOT grade 10. Grade 10 students (especially those of the male gender) are not mature enough to have something like a Science 10 exam (which is more about reading ability than science ability) deciding whether or not they will receive a scholarship for university.

    I thought I was disappointed when the exams became optional. Now I am devastated. And not for me, but for what will undoubtedly follow – a degredation of standards.

    I will hold the line as long as I can.

  5. peter's Gravatar peter
    September 7, 2011 - 8:10 pm | Permalink

    I agree with everything you’ve said. I too am a teacher and have seen the months of May and June go from a time when students studied to a complete waste of time.
    The universities accept first and second term marks, so who cares about the third term or the English 12 test.
    The universities have no right to complain about the lower quality of student. They created this mess by trying to get students’ money earlier in the year.
    You were right on when you talked about content.
    There is no check and balance on grades, so students can lobby at will to get better marks.
    You’re not a dinosaur. You’re a social democrat that’s trying to maintain the importance of factual information- just like George Orwell did.
    It seems you’re not alone.

  6. Heather Maahs's Gravatar Heather Maahs
    September 8, 2011 - 2:26 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this thoughtful insight Colin et al. I whole heartedly agree. As a trustee your comments and perspectives are invaluable to me.

    Thanks again,
    Heather

  7. Jared's Gravatar Jared
    September 8, 2011 - 8:03 pm | Permalink

    I agree with your piece as well. Making the provincial exams optional in the first place had a huge impact on the culture and attitude of the grade 12 year.

    With every year that has passed since the change, it seems like more and more students have already checked out by the time May hits, once they find out they have been accepted into a post-secondary institution.

    Universities are decrying the standards of first-year students, yet they undermined the Grade 12 exams by allowing students to choose not to take them. This past year, it seemed like more of even the stronger students felt there was no point in working so hard to review for an exam that is difficult enough to drop their mark.

    As you said, the Grade 12 exams were well-written, with a significant written portion in both the science and humanities courses. Meanwhile, the math and science exams in Grade 10 are all multiple choice.

    I feel badly for the Grade 10s students, who are stressed to the max, at an age when they are not quite mature enough for that kind of strain (especially the students with learning disabilities), while Grade 12s sit back and take it easy. And these are the same Grade 12s who are planning to attain degrees with courses where high-stake exams occur.

    It bothers me when the government trumpets how they are offering “choice” to the students, yet basically they are making them less accountable, allowing them to “shop” for the easiest way to get marks, whether that is through the most lenient and “fun” teacher in their school, or via online/correspondence courses where they can easily copy and paste or rely on a tutor.

  8. December 24, 2013 - 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Hello Colin,
    Enjoy your blog and tweets!
    Having been involved with the exam program for many years, I thought you made excellent points in this piece of two years ago. Have your views changed? Here’s a piece I wrote a year ago http://www.mussioassociates.com/PDF_files/Commentary–School%20System%20in%20Decline.pdf

  9. January 1, 2014 - 9:07 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure that the Fraser Institute’s rankings themselves are so toxic, but the war started in response to them certainly is. Regardless of that difference of opinion, I think you’ve provided an excellent analysis of the value of the exams. Unfortunately, what teachers, parents, and students value is anathema to the organizations and consultancies that live off of conflict, failure, and perpetual change.

  10. January 9, 2014 - 4:31 pm | Permalink

    You wrote:
    “I keep hearing rumors that high school students may soon have to write user-pay, SAT style entrance exams to universities that no longer worry about empty seats but do worry about declining rigour”
    Do you believe this will be a BC initiative, or Canada-wide program?
    The downside of this type of initiative, as I think you’ve pointed out, is that it likely will not be driven by experienced BC teachers — who historically have set Gr 12 academic standards, who designed and marked the exams, and in the process, transmitted a culture of rigour and excellence to the next generation of teachers.

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