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.

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3 thoughts on “A Numbers Game

  1. What is the difference between 48 and 50%? Could some of the assignments and tests leading up to that 48% been flawed in some manner? Did the student have the intervention needed to re-learn the content s/he needed to learn? We all know that we all learn in different ways and at different rates. Did teachers test the same learning outcomes in the same way? Sometimes I think that passing and failing a student on 2% is just not right.

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    1. Hi Sherry,
      You’re absolutely right – a pass or fail shouldn’t come down to 2%. I was just trying to illustrate a mathematical point.

      In class, depending on teachers’ policies, most students have the opportunity to demonstrate learning with re-writes and other such measures. As well, many districts have a policy of rounding 48-49% to 50%, as does Alberta Ed. The point is that a 30% diploma exam weighting will likely cause pass-rates to increase, simply due to calculation factors.

      If in the final analysis, the difference in the weighting comes down to 2%, then it’s a bit of a moot issue. But then why the change at all? My concern is that the discrepancy between the school-awarded mark and the diploma exam score will increase. With a lower weighting for the exam, the door is further opened to pedagogies that don’t necessarily align with a legitimate knowledge/understanding assessment of key curricular outcomes.

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