Manitoba education leaders assure Grade 12 English exams will go ahead after ‘one-of-a-kind’ postponement

The sudden postponement of a provincial English exam that Manitoba Grade 12 students were supposed to start writing on Monday means they’ll have to wait a little longer, the province says.

On Friday, the province said the four-day English Language Arts Standards exam was suspended due to an issue with necessary permissions to use materials within the test.

Manitoba Education Minister Nello Altomare said the suspension came “out of an abundance of caution regarding identification of certain Manitobans” used in the exam’s reading materials, in response to question by the PCs and Manitoba Liberal Leader Cindy Lamoureux.

“So, in order to protect their privacy … we did the right thing,” he said during Monday’s question period.

All Grade 12 students will write a final English exam by June 21, which will be administered by their schools, said Altomare.

Grade 12 provincial exams, which were reinstated in the 2023/2024 school year, were initially disrupted in 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns. Schools have largely administered the final exams themselves since then, as the former Progressive Conservative government planned to discontinue the tests.

Altomare said the postponed exam was created under the former PC government.

“It wasn’t properly vetted, it wasn’t properly attuned to what was necessary for students, and then when we discovered that the error was made we immediately pulled it because we had to do it for privacy purposes,” he said in question period.

Elizabeth Bourbonnierre, president of the Manitoba Association of Teachers of English, says they were surprised to hear about the suspension of the test “so late in the day” Friday, which caused “a huge rush” for divisions and schools to let families know outside of school hours.

“The suspension has created uncertainty for teachers and students about what the rest of the semester will look like, and what they should be planning for as a final assessment,” she said in an emailed statement to CBC on Monday.

A teenage boy is pictured speaking outside of a school.
Rawel Khattra, a Grade 12 student who wrote a different version of the provincial English exam in January, says the postponement will give students time to prepare. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

Rawel Khattra, a Grade 12 student who wrote a provincial English exam in January, says he was surprised that the suspension was due to issues with permissions.

“It’s pretty shocking, but I think it’s harder for the teachers and stuff, too, because they do all of that preparation,” he said.

“I think it’s better for the students because they have more time to prepare for the exam.”

John Lagman, also a Grade 12 student, is breathing a sigh of relief. He says the exam is helpful to prepare for a post-secondary education, but he’s happy about the postponement.

“I didn’t want to do it, and I’m happy that I’m not doing it,” he said, adding that he has more time to prepare for it.

‘More stringent vetting’ of exam needed

Deputy education minister Brian O’Leary, who is also the former superintendent of the Seven Oaks School Division, says the provincial English exam in question was developed in 2019 and had not been used before.

He would not specify the issue with the test material, but said officials flagged a problem that posed “serious” privacy concerns as well as a potential safety risk when the exam was pulled out to be used this year.

“It’s someone written about, where there was an assumed permission and there in fact, wasn’t permission,” O’Leary said in a Monday interview with CBC.

Seven Oaks School Division superintendent Brian O'Leary.
Deputy education minister Brian O’Leary is seen in a file image. He says the format of the exam will be the same as it was last June, before provincial exams were reinstated. (Nampande Londe/CBC)

He says he cannot recall an event like the exam suspension.

“I hope it’s a one-of-a-kind [incident], and we can move on from it, and we’ll probably put a little more stringent vetting into the next round of exams,” he said.

“It presents some difficulty [for teachers], but nowhere near the kind of difficulties that they surmounted throughout the pandemic.”

The format of the exam will be the same as it was last June, before provincial exams were reinstated, O’Leary said.

He also said the postponement of the exam had nothing to do with the province doubling back on its plan earlier this year to scrap some provincial exams in grades 10 and 12.

Matt Henderson, superintendent of the Winnipeg School Division, says schools will work to reschedule the exams with the best interests of staff and students in mind.

“It’ll be, really, school by school. We have 13 senior years schools … and it will really depend on them,” he said.

“We’re early in the process, and so we’ll wait and hear from Manitoba education and then we’ll proceed from there.”

The exam requires students to think deeply about a number of topics which are presented through a variety of materials, such as written articles and poetry, he said.

“There’s a lot of materials that the teachers and the province put together as a package, so perhaps one of those wasn’t necessarily licensed.”