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Editorial: Lower the stakes of diploma exams

November 18, 2014 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

Kayla (not her real name) is quite possibly one of the brightest people I have ever met. It was a real privilege to have taught her.

She was in Grade 10 when I started my teaching career, which meant that I would teach her math through to Grade 12. Not only was Kayla bright, but she was also part of an exceptional cohort of students. I was quite excited about the prospects of working with them, and over the years I started to get excited about how well they would do on their diploma examinations.

Kayla went into her diploma examination with a well-deserved teacher-awarded mark of 96 per cent —consistent with the grades she received in other classes and consistent with how she did on practice exams.

I was not surprised when she came into school early on exam day to ask me some last-minute questions — it fit her outstanding work ethic. I was, however, quite surprised at the simple stuff she seemed to be asking about. It seemed that, after a night of way too much stressing and cramming, Kayla had completely lost her confidence.

After three hours, Kayla was one of the last students to emerge from the gymnasium, and she was clearly distraught and bewildered. Apparently, some of the information used for a series of questions was presented in a way that confused her.

The confusion combined with the morning’s lost confidence had led to self-doubt, more confusion and less confidence, and it spiralled in a way that affected her performance on other parts of the exam. Her final mark of 74 was very good, but not very indicative of her ability.

For Kayla, and most Grade 12 students, the results of diploma exams can have a dramatic impact on their futures. Getting course credit, obtaining a diploma, getting accepted to a post-secondary institution and receiving scholarships can all hinge on one two-hour multiple-choice exam.

A number of factors can affect an individual’s performance on any given day, so it is patently unfair to use one result to try to represent so much learning and knowledge. To steal a line from Interstellar: it takes two numbers to measure my pants, so why are we measuring our kids with one?

It’s not only students who raise the stakes of these exams. Teachers and schools also unfortunately place too much emphasis on diploma results. We spend lots of time in meetings and seminars learning about exam specifications and analyzing results. The Fraser Institute, the W. Garfield Weston Foundation and even some school boards misuse the results to assess school quality.

In the end we have a classic example of high-stakes standardized testing.

Fortunately, one simple, quick fix would have an immediate impact on bringing down the stakes — a change in weighting!

Currently, too much of the final grade comes from a test that spends two hours with students, and too little comes from the teachers who spend four months with them.

ATA policy calls for a 20 per cent weighting for diploma exams, and now the Alberta School Boards Association has approved a motion calling for a 30 per cent weighting. I applaud trustees for supporting the motion; the government should implement the change. The current 50-50 weighting is out of whack.

If the government does not do that, then students like Kayla will continue to suffer unnecessarily over one simple test that, in the end, gives very little meaningful information about their achievements and capabilities.

Fortunately for Kayla, the low math diploma mark did not stop her from becoming a doctor, but the strain and stress were inappropriate and unnecessary. ❚

I welcome your comments — contact me at

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