It was hard not to hear the relieved sighs, along with the occasional cries, of students all over Alberta resulting from the end of first semester diploma exams. While eighty-two percent of Alberta school boards voted to reduce the weight of grade twelve diploma exams from fifty percent to thirty percent, the province will make the final decision on whether to pass the motion or not. Such a large, critical grade percentage derived from only one test on a single day of the year seems a disproportionate way of representing what a student understands. A single exam that determines whether or not you fail your whole course, possibly disallowing your entrance into certain university courses, seems unreasonable. Let’s take a look at some of the ill-considered aspects of the current weighting of diploma exams, and the concerns expressed by students and teachers alike.
The current weight percentage of fifty percent is an inaccurate representation of what a student actually understands for many reasons. One online distance learning teacher told me she believes exams themselves are not a true representation of a student’s knowledge on a topic. Different students have different learning styles; some may not have a good memory while others may not be able to write very quickly. The percentage should at least be lowered to thirty percent so as to make the exams fairer for students with all different gifts and abilities. She mentioned that if the exam weighting was lowered to thirty percent, “The other seventy percent would include participation in class based on a student’s gifts and learning style. Testing someone’s ability under duress never produces great results unless you have a photographic memory.”
When I asked various high school students about the current weighting of diploma exams, almost all agreed that an exam worth half of your final mark does not allow for any grace. An exam worth fifty percent says that circumstances should be nearly perfect for you to demonstrate what you actually understand. The smallest of factors, such as general nerves, sleeplessness, nausea, soreness, or headaches can affect your ability to concentrate and recall information. The stress created by knowing it will count for half of your grade can make your mind go blank from the pressure to perform well, which also contributes to an inaccurate evaluation. The continuous circle of test anxiety almost always disallows you to show what you really know.
While this general stress is very normal, the thousands of students in Alberta who are affected by anxiety disorders are especially disadvantaged during diplomas because of the notably elevated level of anxiety produced, which contributes great inaccuracy to the exam’s result. The Canadian Mental Health Association states that twenty percent of Canadian teens have a mental disorder, with the highest percentage being anxiety. According to Alberta Health Services, it is the most common mental disorder amongst Albertan teens alongside depression, especially between girls aged 15 to 19. Intelligent students who struggle with anxiety disorders might earn high marks before diplomas, but may do very poorly on the exam compared to what they are really capable of, and their final mark will not truly demonstrate their knowledge. What if a student wanted to enroll in an academic university course but does not achieve a competitive enough mark, just because of one attempt at an exam? This would tell them they are not eligible to go and learn what they want to, which is not necessarily true.
Another aspect that many students and teachers agree upon is the disproportionality of these exams. An exam taken in a couple hours’ worth half of your final course grade is disproportional when compared to the months of work and study throughout the school year. One Albertan grade twelve student told me she believes that, “As students we work very hard every semester to get our high marks, so when we come to take our diploma there is a lot weighing on it. Exams cause stress and we have to accomplish a lot in a small amount of time.” Also, real careers don’t exactly work like this; people are not rewarded for a couple hours of testing, but a good job consists of daily commitment and hard effort.
Because of this disproportionality, teachers will often spend a large amount of time throughout the school year focusing on outcomes which are covered in the exams, so as to prepare students to do well on the exam. Since exams can only cover a small part of a course’s outcomes, many important topics within a course may be ignored. These topics are often skills that will be important for university and later life and are unable to be measured in an exam, such as hands-on problem solving. If the weighting was lowered, teachers would be flexible to teach on these other important aspects instead of feeling forced to teach mainly on the examined outcomes.
A last fact to consider is that Alberta is the only place in Canada where students take diploma exams worth fifty percent. Compared to the rest of Canada, grade twelve students in Alberta are examined the hardest. Most provinces write teacher created finals which are usually only worth about thirty percent. Those wanting to enroll in universities outside Alberta may be disadvantaged, as their grade is somewhat incomparable to other students from that province.
It’s time for Alberta’s diploma exams to lose weight!