Debate over return of Manitoba high school exams doesn’t yield easy answers

As Manitoba prepares to reinstate Grade 12 high school exams in 2024, there is a growing debate on whether or not they are the right way to evaluate students.

But the answer to that — like in many exams — is not an easy one.

Some believe standardized tests are necessary assessment tools to ensure students grasp the lessons they’ve been taught and prepare them for their futures.

Others say individuals are complex, as is their capacity for learning, and being put under stress for a few hours cannot properly measure knowledge. Then there are external factors — socio-economic conditions — that put some students at a disadvantage.

One thing experts agree on is that assessing students’ competency is critical to ensuring they are informed thinkers.

But Matt Henderson, assistant superintendent at Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg, questions if a standardized test can accurately gauge if a student is prepared for the real world, or if measures whether the system has done its job to push learning forward.

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Matt Henderson says assessments need to gauge if a student is prepared for the real world and whether the system has done its job to push learning forward. (Jen Baron)

“If you look at a driver’s test, for example, we ask learners who want to become drivers to actually drive and then we provide them with feedback. We don’t ask them to make a sandwich,” Henderson said.

“An assessment really has to align with the complexity and sophistication of the thinking we’re wanting to elicit.”

The Grade 12 exams will test students on mathematics and language arts. The province is also introducing a new Grade 10 evaluation, though details on how it will be presented are still being worked out.

Provincial exams vanished during the years all schooling was online due to the pandemic so many students have never written one. For them to succeed, they need to be taught how to handle that, Henderson said.

“We can’t sort of say: ‘Hey, we’ve taught you all these outcomes and you’ve learned these outcomes … but we’re going to do it in a way that you haven’t really done it before.’ That’s not authentic,” he said.

“I would also say a Grade 12 evaluation, right at the end when there’s no feedback afterwards is probably not that effective in terms of student learning.”

Some will argue that exams make students responsible for their learning and equip them for post-secondary schooling, said Lesley Eblie Trudel, University of Winnipeg’s associate dean of the faculty of education.

But does that type of assessment make sense for students not going on to post-secondary, she asked, adding she is concerned about exam pressure.

“Throughout the pandemic we’ve seen mental health challenges increase and this could potentially add to that stress.”

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Lesley Elbie Trudel worries standardized test scores could be used to rank schools, rather than focus on student needs. (Lesley Elbie Trudel/Twitter)

Classroom teachers can assess students in a number of ways — quizzes, assignments and project-based learning throughout the year — without a summative assessment at the end, Eblie Trudel said.

“From my perspective, we’re teaching teachers to use assessment to focus on student learning. And that should be the purpose of it.”

She worries standardized test scores might be used to rank schools and determine which ones are performing better.

“Test scores are often, in that case, more about who the student is than what learning can be demonstrated.”

“In Manitoba we have high rates of child poverty and we have students that are struggling with housing and food insecurity and so what you’re seeing is that [exam results] are often elements of socio-economic factors,” Eblie Trudel said.

“That’s why it’s important for teachers to have that discretion in terms of what percentage that exam will carry in that student’s year and in that student’s academic life.”

The weight of a two- to three-hour exam session that carries 30 to 50 per cent of a grade can be overwhelming for some, according to Erin Maloney, Canada Research Chair in academic achievement and well-being at the University of Ottawa.

“What happens is that you experience negative thoughts and ruminations, usually about the consequences of not doing well, and what happens is those negative thoughts tie up some of the important cognitive resources that you need in order to be able to do the actual test,” she said, citing anxiety research done over the past 10 to 20 years.

“So you see this sort of artificial lowering of scores on tests for students who are really anxious.”

Erin Maloney says anxiety can lower test scores because students experience negative thoughts, usually about the consequences of not doing well, and those tie up important cognitive resources. (CBC)

That said, there are people who thrive in those kinds of pressure situations.

“There are a subset of people that the anxiety really doesn’t impact them or it just gears them up in a way that they can hyper focus and do really well,” said Maloney, who does use exams in the classes she teaches.

“There are points in life where we’re going to be in high pressure situations and I think it’s important to know how to handle those situations.”

She combines those with a variety of other assessment techniques “so the entire weight of the class is not riding just on one or two tests.”

“I think pretty much everyone can show what they know, given the option of doing so in the way that maybe best suits their personality and their interests,” she said.

For Henderson, he prefers an assessment process designed around a student’s own objectives, which is the best way to set them up for their particular future.

The former principal of the Maples Met School in Winnipeg noted how it combines academic work with real-world learning and internships for students to explore their specific interests.

Students write tests but also do four public exhibitions a year, providing theses defences to prove what they’ve learned.

“That’s one example of many, in all schools that are creative, where people are designing assessments and summative assessments that are rigorous but are authentic and fundamentally transparent.”