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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 5, March 2007

The English 10 provincial exam

by Susan and Bill Stenson

What can one say about the emergence of compulsory government English 10 exams? There are two answers to this question: (1) lots and (2) not much that will have any impact on the present status quo.

To be fair, the perception may have been that students passing through some BC schools do not experience end-of-course exams, and that they ought to. To what extent this is true, I’m not sure. The school where we work, Claremont Secondary School, has always had end-of-course exams for English 9, English 10, and English 11, and to our way of thinking, the exams are superior to the current English 12 exam. All of our homegrown exams reflect sight passages in both short-story and poetry genres, and half the total value of the exam is a choice of essay questions that reflect the works studied during the year. This latter section gives an overall purpose and focus for the course and provides useful feedback to teachers on the units of study chosen. All three sections of the exam mirror the state of writing skills of our students—there are no objective sections to be found. How un-American.

Exams do funny things to pedagogy. We have heard of individual teachers and, in some cases, whole schools spending as much as 50% of their English 12 time to "school" their students on the vagaries of the exam they will eventually face. It is, after all, worth 40% of their final mark. The balance of the time, so I’ve been told, is concerned with the study of Hamlet and one novel (read orally to the students), proving once and for all there is more than one way to send students into the world after what, for many, is their last formal study of English. There are plenty of sound reasons to accept the notion of a formal exam of some sort at the end of 13 years of public school. The ramifications of what many perceive as a necessity is consequential enough at the Grade 12 level. The introduction of a government exam at the English 10 level is an additional hurdle that must now be dealt with and the context is out of tune.

The English 12 exam is a provincial exam in a context we are accustomed to. The English 10 exam is not. Marking procedures have varied tremendously, if the grapevine has any credence. Initially, in Saanich, marking was done on a Saturday with teachers who were paid. Now, Grade 10 teachers must mark the exam. At our school, this means an English teacher may have four exams to mark at the end of a given semester. English 10 exams are kept under lock and key and are group-marked. This exercise takes an entire day, not counting the time to collect examples and photocopy, etc. The creation, administration, and marking of a government exam requires adequate funding, and to this point the funding of the English 10 exam has not come close. This is information that needs to be shared with the general public. We cannot call these examinations provincial! The teachers are not given clear guidelines or exemplars. The exams are scooped up and sold to a Kelowna company and resold to districts across the province.

One of the most innocuous aspects of having a government exam at the English 10 level is the timing of the exam. All students must take English 9 and English 10. After that there are options and students who struggle do not have to follow the academic focus of English 11 and English 12. It has been routine for years at our school to peruse closely the results of students for whom success in English 11 and English 12 is not a given—in order that the best decision for their future can be made. Because of timetabling complexities at the secondary level, particularly on the semester system, teachers no longer have control over offering to such "at risk" students and their families useful, professional advice. The exams are shipped off for accounting purposes and a month or more into the next semester the "truth" the government has been desperately seeking is made available. For many, this information comes too late. The timing of the exam also impacts some students in the process of attaining "designated" status because of inherent learning difficulties. Such designation is often obtained by Grade 10, but for many students this is the year when such distinction becomes official. Accommodations that would be forthcoming during the English 12 exam--things like more time, a scribe, a computer—are not in place for the English 10 exercise. Another point that is often missed when marking under such conditions, particularly with the reading section, is that teachers look for two or three mundane points established through an exemplar or established through a particularly dominant personality at the table. Experienced teachers versus non-experienced, full contract teachers versus received-a-pink-slip teachers. This is not a comfortable position.

In Saanich, the year we attempted district-wide marking, it was impossible to agree on exemplars. The teachers simply could not agree and the government provided no assistance. A number of exam marks returned to the school with extremely low grades. Upon investigation, we noticed they’d all been marked by the same person (based on the use of pencil, not pen). Two teachers and an administrator re-marked these exams and in every case the marks improved by one or two on the scale of six.

Student evaluation is important. A process of consultation including strong representation from the professional teachers of English would be encouraging and then the timing and form of evaluation can best be tailored to meet the needs of our students in the context of the overall educational experience. The distance between current policymaking in the province of BC and effective delivery of that service to the clientele it is intended for makes headlines when it is discovered in the health field or when a decision to build fast ferries is made. It is a process that has proven to get us no where. No where fast.

Bill and Susan Stenson teach at Claremont Secondary School, Victoria and co-founded the Claremont Review.

Reprinted from Update, the journal of the BC Teachers of English Language Arts, vol. 48, #2, October 2006.

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