Inconsistency with high school exams is a problem, say students and educators

Inconsistency with high school exams is a problem, say students and educators

Although classrooms have largely returned to pre-pandemic operations, final exams aren’t necessarily back on every high schooler’s schedule. Over the past three years, students have faced different final assessments depending on their province, school board or even their individual teachers.

While some reinstated exams as before, others have yet to resume the practice.

That inconsistency in approach is a concern, according to students, high school teachers and post-secondary educators who spoke with CBC News.

Makayla McIntosh (Brampton, Ont.)

A teen with long braided hair and wearing a gray sweat shirt sits in a bright and spacious kitchen, with an open laptop computer before her.  A family room is behind.
Brampton, Ont., student Makayla McIntosh just successfully completed her first exams ever in her Grade 9 classes, scoring marks in the 80s and 90s. ‘You don’t want your first exam to be in Grade 11 or 12 or in university, when that stuff really counts,’ she said. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Despite being a keen student who thoroughly prepared, Grade 9 student Makayla McIntosh was quite nervous and “dreading” her first high school final exams this week.

“The word ‘exam’ — if they just called it a test, I think it’d be a lot less [stressful],” she said. The Dufferin Peel Catholic School Board student had just finished exams in geography, science, business technology and physical education.

Despite her earlier anxiety, the 14-year-old was still happy she had exams in first place. She thinks they’re valuable for younger high schoolers.

“You don’t want your first exam to be in Grade 11 or 12 or in university, when that stuff really counts,” said McIntosh, who hopes to make the honor roll. “I think it’s good to get practice in.”

The teen found that it felt like “just a test and it’s not that bad,” she added. “I was surprised, to be honest… I thought we stressed ourselves out for no reason.”

Jules Pryma (Abbotsford, BC)

A man in a gray-and-yellow patterned shirt stands in a school office room.  Flyers affixed to the wall and neat piles of papers are seen stacked on shelves behind him.
Abbotsford, BC, teacher Jules Pryma, who has taught high school science for 25 years, believes exams are absolutely necessary for Grade 11 and 12 students. (Submitted by Jules Pryma)

High school teacher Jules Pryma, on the other hand, has a different perspective. Having developed and adapted his approach to assessments over 25 years of teaching science, he thinks Grades 9 and 10 might be a bit young for high-stakes final exams. Yet he considers them imperative for senior students

The Abbotsford School District educator counts final exams as a valuable tool, alongside a host of others, such as in-class discussions, small- and larger-group work assignments or demonstrating knowledge of more practical skills (such as handling glassware in chemistry) during unit tests.

Pryma believes that current inconsistency in grading and testing at the secondary level contributes to a trend of inflated marks and students unprepared for post-secondary education, whether their choice is university, college or trades programs.

“They cross the country to go to a school and they’re [expecting] to be prepared for the rigor of this,” he said. “And certainly in science and in mathematics … in those areas those students need to be well prepared — and we’re not preparing them well enough.”

While he doesn’t advocate simply returning to the practices of the past — “we can come up with way better exams,” he says — Pryma considers exams a necessity.

“The focus has to be on knowledge and skills, and not just predominantly on skills,” he said. “And [it] has to be done as an individual, in some spot where they are working independently, on their own.”

Ishaal Ali (Ottawa)

A teen girl with long curly hair and glasses stands outdoors.  A large snowbank is seen behind her.
Even though having her first-ever exams canceled by her Ottawa school board initially felt ‘like almost a weight being lifted off my shoulders,’ Grade 10 student Ishaal Ali now feels that she’s at a disadvantage. (Submitted by Ishaal Ali)

When she started Grade 10 this year, Ishaal Ali throught the fall semester would end with her first-ever series of final exams because “we were getting back on track after COVID.”

However, when she learned several weeks ago that her board — the Ottawa Carleton District School Board — canceled finals for Grade 9 and 10 students, the 15-year-old had mixed feelings.

Initially, “it was like almost a weight being lifted off my shoulders,” said Ali. However, that soon gave way to new stress about writing exams without any experience in her Grade 11 year, when grades begin to count for post-secondary studies.

Ali’s teachers ultimately offered different summative assessments, including some written tests, along with an in-class debate in French, and an essay and visual presentation for her history class. She appreciated their approaches, but said she didn’t feel as ready for the future as students who had experience writing exams.

“It also sort of gives them an advantage for Grade 11, which I think can create fluctuations between … the school boards, like in terms of grades and percentages and marks,” she said.

Ali doesn’t think final exams are always the best or the only way to measure student learning, but he does want to see consistency. “If there is such a standard [for having final exams]… then everybody should be doing them.”

Tasha Ausman (Gatineau, Que.)

A woman with short hair smiles at the camera in this black and white portrait.
Tasha Ausman teaches high school math and science teacher in Gatineau, Que., says final exams should be one component of a variety of assessments given to students. (Van Tran Photography)

Quizzes, tests and exams show how students fare “under time-bound, high-stress examination contexts,” but solely relying on those simply rewards the students that perform well under those particular circumstances, says Tasha Ausman, a high school math and science teacher in the Western Quebec School Board and a part-time curriculum studies professor at the University of Ottawa.

She described a lively conversation happening among the teacher, pre-service teacher and education communities today that’s exploring the complexity of assessment and how to ensure the methods being used offer “a really robust picture of what researchers know and what they can do, through a variety of assessments, whereby something like a final exam is only one piece of that puzzle.”

WATCH | As exams return for some students, so does the debate on their value for evaluating learning:

High schools face exam anxiety after years of pandemic learning

Some high school students are anxiously preparing to write exams for the first time ever, since many schools paused the tests during the height of the pandemic. It’s reigniting a debate among educators over whether exams are truly the best way to grade students.

As provincial ministries and departments of education work on updating the K-12 assessment to consider a “complete picture of the learner,” she said, and though there does tend to be more formative, project-based and non-testing kinds of assessments eventually for post-secondary students, change takes time.

Most students today will face exams, Ausman noted, whether it be standardized tests, admission assessments for a particular program of study or different high-stakes tests that come after high school — whether they’re choosing to study a trade, enrol in college or in university.

“The entire system is not instantaneously rewriting itself,” she said.

Louis Volante (St. Catharines, Ont.)

A man in glasses, a white button down shirt and black sweater stood in his office, with shelves filled with books and a window visible behind him.
‘The fact of the matter is that high school students need to be prepared to write and sit exams,’ because so many will be pursuing post-secondary studies, where they’ll inevitably be doing them, says Brock University education professor Louis Volante. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

What’s needed is better alignment between what happens at the senior high school level and with first and second-year college and university students, “because those tend to be the most difficult years when it comes to things like testing anxiety,” according to educational researchers and Brock University professor Louis Volante.

“It would be in the senior grades — 11 and 12 — when those grades count toward admission and the first and second-year students, who are at an increased risk for academic failure,” he said.

There must be more consistency and updates to provincial assessment frameworks governing how senior high schoolers students are evaluated “so that there’s a common metric and there’s a common structure that they experience,” said Volante, a professor of educational studies at the St. Catharines, Ont., school and president of the Canadian Society for the Study of Education.

Without this, he added, the situation will continue to be a double-edged sword: both for students who are ill-prepared and struggling once attending post-secondary as well as for those who are not accepted in the first place because it is more rigorous assessment left them with lower marks.

“The fact of the matter is that high school students need to be prepared to write and sit exams and to have those kinds of skills because they’re inevitably going to be … writing a lot of traditional paper and pencil tests [in post-secondary],” he said.