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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 5, March 2005

Letter to minister from VSB

Dear Mr. Christensen:

On behalf of the Vancouver School Board, I am writing to express our concerns about the ministry’s new Grade 10 provincial exams to be imposed this year. Let me say at the outset that we understand the importance of assessment for, and of, learning. We believe that good assessment practices contribute to good teaching and student success. Ideally, we think that ongoing assessment should acknowledge a broad range of accomplishments and provide students with opportunities to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways. Tracking the progress of student achievement is important for all involved: the students whose needs can thus be identified, the teachers who can learn more about their students and plan effectively for their teaching, and the parents to whom reports can be directed so they can follow and support their child’s progress.

That having been said, the proposal for Grade 10 provincial exams raises several issues for the board. Our concerns are in three major areas: the educational value of the tests, the potential negative effects of the tests on teaching and learning, and the cost of the tests. I will outline our concerns in each of these areas.

First, we are skeptical of the educational value of the provincial tests. Large scale high stakes testing such as the Grade 10 exams are, indeed, valuable for collecting centralized data that can be used to rank and compare students and schools. Such testing has not, to our knowledge, proven through research to be useful for improving individual student learning. Nor do we recall from consultations about changes to the graduation requirements, any expression of interest from stakeholders to implement provincial testing at Grade 10.

There are already clear course objectives in place for each of the subjects the Ministry of Education proposes to test. Schools are already accountable for learning outcomes. Teachers have many assessment activities in place for the content they have covered. They use a wide range of assessment instruments and incorporate authentic tools and measures. Results of teachers’ assessments of student learning are communicated to parents and students through graded assignments and report cards. These school-based assessments provide students, teachers, and parents with the information they need for learning and teaching. We do not understand how provincial testing can positively add to this complement of school and classroom assessments. We would be interested to know if the Ministry of Education based the decision to implement Grade 10 exams on research. If this is the case, what is the research that indicates that this kind of testing has educational value?

Second, we are concerned about the potential negative impact the testing may have on learning and teaching. We believe, and the new graduation program anticipates, that Grade 10 should be a time for exploration. Students at this age are still quite vulnerable, distracted by growth and development issues, identity formation/exploration, and peer pressure. We fear that the exams may heighten the risk of school failure or, at least the perception of failure. This is especially the case for particular groups of students: ESL, those with learning differences and difficulties and other special needs, low achievers, adult students working toward secondary school completion, for some examples. Equity of opportunity and outcome for all students could be undermined. Negative examples of increasing student stress, anxiety, and failure as a result of too many high-stakes exams are readily available in other countries like the United States and England, and in the province of Ontario. We fear the same results in British Columbia.

Furthermore, research and experience show that high-stakes tests lead, over time, to teaching to the test, as teachers feel pressure to ensure that their students pass the exams. This has the effect of narrowing curriculum and modes of instruction. Tests capture a very narrow picture of achievement or mastery of both subject content and related skills. Highly valued learning outcomes, such as critical and creative thinking, or social competence and social responsibility, are not easily measured by tests with right and wrong answers. We would not like to see our Grade 10 classrooms reduced to a focus on what can be measured on a provincial test. In deciding to implement these exams at Grade 10, were these concerns about potential negative impact on teaching and learning taken into consideration? If so, could you tell us what you have determined will mitigate these concerns?

We do understand that the exams count for only 20% of the mark of a student and have heard Ministry of Education staff say that consequently the results should not be the determining factor for a student’s passing or failing. However, we hold that pressure will be placed on students and teachers to achieve in these tests, and that this pressure will be sufficient to cause the potential negative impacts we have outlined here.

Our third set of concerns is about the expense for resources used to create, administer, and mark these exams. This concern is, of course, related to their educational benefit, as the case has not been made that there is educational value. In a school system where resources are so limited, we believe the costs of the tests would be better directed to the enhancement of instruction or the learning environment. Perhaps the decision to have teachers mark exams in their own schools was a decision to reduce costs, but we believe that this is an unacceptable downloading of additional work at a very busy time of year when teachers are already experiencing workload pressures. Could you provide us with an estimate of the costs of this exam program?

We believe our concerns are shared by many and would ask that you consider carefully the questions posed in this letter. In short, is there sufficient educational benefit of the Grade 10 exam program to warrant the cost and potential negative effect on teaching and learning? We note that in Finland, where high-stakes tests are not used in the school system, the students perform extremely well on international and local measures of achievement. If student success is what we are all focussing our resources and attention on, then perhaps we could learn a lesson from them. We urge the ministry to eliminate these Grade 10 examinations from the graduation program effective this school year. Your response to this matter is greatly appreciated.

Adrienne Montani, Chairperson, Vancouver School District.

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