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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 5, March 2006

The folly of provincial examinations

by Gordon R. Gore

Provincial examinations ruin good science courses. The purpose of laboratory-based science courses is to make science real to students. It is far more productive to teach fewer concepts well, using selective hands-on investigations, than it is to teach an encyclopedic science course and have students memorize trivia for an examination made up by outsiders.

British Columbia has long been a leader in science education in this country. BC science teachers were using laboratory-based, conceptual science courses back in the 1960s.

Physics 12 (BC) was originally designed as a laboratory-based course, emphasizing the big ideas in classical physics. Students performed numerous thought-provoking experiments, which gave them a taste of how physics knowledge is obtained. They did solve a significant number of word problems, but the word problems were ultimately based upon what students learned through their experiments. The ‘hard’ thinking was in the analysis of results.

Within a few years of provincial examinations being re-imposed in 1984, one could see the emphasis changing: More chalk and talk, plenty of practice in doing word problems, lots of time writing old tests "for practice." Laboratory work is not tested, so leave it out. Learning how to write tests is more important than learning how physics works. In other words, back to the 1950s.

What would happen if we actually trusted our professionally trained physics teachers to evaluate their own students, at least on a district basis? The quality of instruction would improve remarkably, that’s what would happen! When a knowledgeable teacher has ownership of her or his course and how she or he teaches it, the emphasis is on fitting the course to the students you have that year, rather than fitting the students to "the test." There is incentive to try different approaches to see what works best. Physics teachers know in their gut that students learn more physics if the subject is made real through hands-on experiments. Without artificial pressure from provincial examinations, the course has a degree of open-endedness, which permits the teacher to adapt to individual interests and needs.

I am certain that the grades teachers give physics students are a better predictor of future success than the marks from provincial exams. The bureaucrats, politicians, and some teachers and administrators will say, "But you need a level playing field!" Well, if they think the present system provides a level playing field, they are living in a fantasy world.

If you really want something close to a level playing field, try this:

  1. Give every student a physics teacher with a talent and a passion for teaching physics, who has an adequate background in physics, and who has time to dedicate to teaching physics. 
  2. Give every student an equal background in mathematics before (and while) he or she takes physics. 
  3. Put every student on a timetable that provides equal hours of instruction. 
  4. Provide every school with the same textbooks. 
  5. Equip every physics class with a full set of quality equipment for all laboratory experiments. 
  6. Make sure that every physics class spends equal time on laboratory work. 
  7. Ensure that every class is limited in size so that all students have adequate assistance. 
  8. Give every physics student a home situation that permits the student to study in a comfortable and supportive environment. 
  9. Allow each student the luxury of being able to dedicate full time to schoolwork and of not having to work part time.

How should students be evaluated?

Testing is an important part of science education, and it should be done properly. However, it should be a school or district responsibility. Teachers within a district could easily come to a consensus on what physics students should have accomplished during a course. There are several advantages to making final evaluation a local responsibility:

1. The local marking load would be more manageable, so more use would be made of open-ended questions, where students have to explain how they arrive at their answers, or put into words "how things work."

2. A laboratory component could be introduced. Within a district, teachers could agree on what equipment is available, and what skills are worth testing. Creative physics teachers could come up with laboratory tests that are actually fun to do!

3. Results of local tests would be known by the end of June. If local testing were used, students would not need to wait until August to find out how they stand.

4. District-designed tests would have greater face validity. Marks would be based on what we actually did this year, rather than what some external examiner decides should be tested. Physics teachers as a group are an intellectually honest, dedicated bunch, and don’t need Big Brother to tell them what they should teach or test.

5. Localized testing would likely have the effect of increasing participation rates in Physics 12. Physics is a beautiful, fascinating, interesting subject if the emphasis is placed on real-life situations, on hands-on physics. Give teachers ownership, so they use their common sense and creativity in adapting the course to their students instead of painting by number, and in a short time, they will build a program that is far more attractive and meaningful.

6. Localized testing would really upset the Fraser Institute and their silly annual ranking of schools. In my opinion, this would be a very good thing.

Are these ideas revolutionary? Not really. There have been several windows of opportunity in the past few decades where there were no provincial examinations at all. During those years when there were no provincial examinations, the sky did not fall. Standards did not go down. In fact, one former ministry official told me that teachers were harder on students than the provincial examiners are.

How would we determine who wins scholarships? Surely district teachers know best who is university material and who excels in their subjects. Why not have some sort of quota system and leave the ultimate selection of scholarship winners up to the schools and districts? Selection of scholarship winners will then be based upon a thorough knowledge of student abilities and academic potential, rather than who can practise most and get the largest number of correct answers on multiple choice tests. Would that be any better or worse than the present system?

Gordon Gore, a retired BC science and physics teacher, is still teaching science and physics on a volunteer basis at the BIG Little Science Centre in Kamloops.

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