A Numbers Game

Last week in Alberta, Minister of Education Gordon Dirks announced that exit-level diploma exams in core subject areas will no longer be worth 50% of a student’s final grade, but that the weighting will instead drop to 30%. This seems to have been met with general favour among parents, teachers, and policymakers.

To be clear, this is not a hill on which I’d die. At the end of the day, I don’t think it makes a huge difference, although I am among those who favoured the 50% weighting. As a diploma-level teacher myself, the context of this kind of high-stakes exam, as a culmination of twelve years of learning in a given subject area, has been effective. It has served to create a common understanding of key aspects of a curriculum, providing a measure of consistency in the teaching and learning of that curriculum, as well as being a useful snapshot of the range of classrooms in Alberta. Further, the diploma exam has served as a necessary equalizer when taking into account post-secondary admission requirements for students within the “provincial classroom.” None of these benefits are necessarily negated with the change to a 30% weighting. My fear is that there may be, as there often is, unintended consequences:

  1. Overall, classroom marks tend to be higher than diploma exam scores. This is because throughout the term, students are assessed on the whole curriculum, they are usually assessed against various measures of achievement, they are often allowed to re-write tests, and they have resources available to them in many assessment situations. So if a student achieves 80% in class, they may reasonably achieve 70% on the diploma exam. With a 50% diploma exam weighting, the final grade is 75%. With a 30% diploma exam weighting, the final grade is 77%. This isn’t a huge difference. But if the majority of university applicants’ grades increase by such a margin, admission requirements will simply increase. Currently, the minimum admission requirement for Engineering at the University of Alberta for the 2015-2016 school year is 88%. Let’s say that goes up to 90%. The room for considering factors other than grades shrinks. Grade inflation may become more prevalent.
  2. If the discrepancy between the classroom grade and the diploma exam grade continues to increase beyond, say, 10%, universities may well consider an entrance exam similar to the SAT in the U.S. This is problematic because the current diploma exams are written by seconded teachers and subject experts who understand the outcomes of a given curriculum. The exam is designed based on exactly that, with the goal of measuring knowledge and understanding of what Alberta Education has set as the standard within our province. University entrance exams may not align as neatly with what students were supposed to have learned and may, in fact, allow for various biases that current exam developers work tirelessly to minimize. And, of course, students would likely have to pay to write such entrance exams, adding another layer of concern to this proposition.
  3. Students who pursue university-level post-secondary education often return to their high school teachers and claim that they were not prepared for the level of expectation and rigour at university. This feeling may be exacerbated with the new diploma exam weighting. Many have argued that university classes today do not even employ final exams weighted 50%. I looked into this. In Maths and Sciences at the university post-secondary level, it is absolutely common to have final exams weighted 50% or more. However, even with other courses, it may be true that final exams are more in the 30-35% weighting range. That said, if the midterm is included, that weighting, for two exams, goes to 55-65%. So while it doesn’t all come down to ONE exam, it certainly comes down to two, often with only one or two other assessments to mitigate the final grade.

The reality is that not all students will go on to university-level post-secondary study. So why employ a high-stakes exit exam that seems to, at least on some level, address post-secondary admission equalization? Perhaps that’s a good point, but I fear that the 17% of Alberta high-school students who transition directly to university will be the most disadvantaged by the new diploma exam weighting. Further, while only 17% of Alberta high-school students transition directly to university-level post-secondary study, more than 41% attend some kind of post-secondary institution, whether they be universities, colleges, or polytechnics. All of these have become increasingly competitive, and therefore a rigorous, objective, and comprehensive diploma exam worth 50% of a student’s grade seems fair to me.

I think the primary benefit of lowering the weighting of the diploma exam is to artificially improve provincial completion rates. Our most recent statistics for 3-year completion rates in Alberta indicate that 75% of students graduate. This, by many, is considered to be rather poor; that’s obviously debatable. However, if we consider 5-year completion rates, that statistic jumps to 82%, which starts to look better. This business of completion rates has long been a valid preoccupation of Alberta Education. However, the delicate balance between focusing on completion rates and focusing on excellence in education needs to be maintained; lowering the diploma exam weighting does not, to my mind, maintain that balance.

One final tidbit for consideration: With a 50% diploma exam weighting, if a student achieves 53% in class and 43% on the diploma exam (the top-end of a reasonable discrepancy), he or she earns a final grade of 48%. The same grades, applied to a 30% diploma exam weighting, sees the same student achieve a final grade of 50%. Good job, Alberta Education!

I predict that 3-year high-school completion rates in Alberta will rise to at least 80% for the 2015-2016 school year. Won’t that look nice on international education reports? Perhaps other countries will start asking what Alberta has done to improve its system and we’ll become the new edu-tourist destination – Finland is so over.


The Vagaries of Vision

I spent this weekend binge-watching Season 3 of House of Cards. There’s an excellent scene in one of the latter episodes where Frank is prepping for an upcoming debate and he’s concerned about using the word “action.” His Communications Director suggests replacing the word with “vision” because “people can project anything they want onto vision.” So true.

Recently I attended a PD conference for my district. One of the sessions was a panel discussion wherein the issue was trends in education. No practicing teachers were on the panel, but the room was filled with about 600 of us. The panel members discussed the glory of Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative, the failure of constructivist approaches in elementary mathematics, the inextricable socio-economic factors that influence education, and the nature of trends in pedagogy and philosophies of education. The last ten minutes were reserved for questions from the audience, none of which were particularly illuminating.

As a subject expert with ten years of secondary education experience, I enjoyed the range of opinions presented in the discussion, but I also felt somewhat offended, as I often do when education policy is discussed with “stakeholders” throughout the province. Perhaps more than any other profession, teaching is subject to the scrutiny and influence of people who are not teachers, or may never even have been. That’s because every member of society is impacted by education. So, of course, teachers, policy experts, parents, and students should have a voice in defining what we want our education system to be. However, deference should be given to teachers, who are on the front lines of education every day and who, presumably, have the historical knowledge and training to the job they’re entrusted to do.

Unfortunately, when teachers allow themselves to engage in fruitless debates, such as whether or not constructivist approaches to teaching and learning yield deeper understanding for the majority of students, or whether or not allowing the majority of students to choose what they want to learn will lead to engagement and a love of learning, we marginalize our own voices in discussions regarding the advancement of education. If teachers don’t know the answers to these questions, who does?!? By allowing various “visions” to be espoused and mindlessly adopted, like that of Inspiring Education here in Alberta, we relegate ourselves to the periphery; educrats and those with economic interests take center stage and push their fads, where any interpretation of these “visions” can be justified, depending on the ebb and flow of the ideological tide.

Evidence supporting the most effective approaches to curriculum design and development, teaching methods, and assessment, exists. As teachers, it is our responsibility to be aware of and to make ourselves familiar with this research. Don’t get me wrong – all good teachers employ various methods at various times, to achieve various goals. I’ve mentioned that I, too, elicit student participation in class discussions. I, too, assign small-scale projects in an effort to diversify the teaching and learning experience. I, too, have formative assessment embedded in my teaching practice. We must get beyond the false dichotomy of teachers as stand-and-deliver drill sergeants or teachers as guides-on-the-side who never explain anything directly. Good teaching has always been somewhere in the middle, involving a wide range of methodologies. But the fact is that teachers are trained in a given subject area; they are the experts, having earned their designation as the “sage on the stage.” If that doesn’t manifest itself in the classroom as the standard, there’s a problem.

I narrowly avoided a bit of a Twitter-war yesterday in this regard, because I chose not to engage, albeit reluctantly; I sometimes must force myself to bite my tongue (or Twitter-finger, in this case) because I can get myself into trouble. I was part of a thread where two teachers, one of whom is pursuing a PhD in education, dismissively admitted that they’ve never hear of Project Follow Through. Wow. How can you so vehemently oppose direct instruction if you’ve never heard of the largest-scale longitudinal study, replicated on a smaller scale in 2004, which unequivocally supports the efficacy of direct instruction?!? Later, in the same thread, another person asked me to define constructivism, since I clearly didn’t understand its superiority to traditional teaching methods. That’s when I tapped out; it was late and I had neither the time nor the inclination to start the debate from square one.

This reborn “progressive” ideology has permeated Alberta Education, among many other systems in the world, it seems. We need to respond with logic, reason, research, and evidence. Schools are institutions that should serve as strong foundations in an ever-changing world. They cannot be ideological transients subject to whatever fads and trends come and go, or we’ll never get anywhere. Incidentally, look how far we have come as a civilization over the past 200 years – under a traditional model of schooling and education. In fact, many of those traditional methods now have research in the fields of cognitive science and psychology to support their efficacy. Schools are the bedrock of our contemporary civilization and while they should change with the times to some extent, those changes should be motivated by clearly articulated reasons and goals, not by fuzzy and intangible “visions” that lack clarity and definition, let alone the ability to be meaningfully measured. Further, they should be incremental; sweeping changes for no good reason, as we see happening in Alberta, compromise our balance as we stand on the shoulders of giants.