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Lower diploma exam weighting brings student relief, but could affect motivation, teachers say

Keelin Clarke was relieved and ecstatic when they saw a text message from a friend on Monday saying the weighting of diploma exams was dropping.

Clarke has three diploma exams to write this school year — math first, then social studies and English next semester.

The Grade 12 student at Victoria School of the Arts wants to do a science degree, and is worried that one bad day on a high-stakes exam could affect their ability to get into post-secondary programs.

“It’s not that I’m bad at the subjects,” Clarke said Tuesday. “It’s just that the test is so stressful, when I’m sitting there for six-plus hours doing 30-plus questions, I just panic. In my seat. It’s awful.”

Mavis Averill is the superintendent of Boyle Street Education Centre in downtown Edmonton. The charter school caters to youth with challenging lives that have left more traditional schools. (Supplied by Boyle Street Education Society)

On Monday, the Alberta government announced the exams will be worth 20 per cent of a student’s final grade for the 2022-23 school year.

Although the exams had been worth 30 per cent of a final mark since 2015, the COVID-19 pandemic threw diploma exams into chaos. Spring 2020 exams were cancelled. The exams were optional during the 2020-21 school year.

Last year, the Omicron wave cancelled January exams, and spring 2022 exams were worth 10 per cent of students’ final mark.

Fellow Victoria Grade 12 student Elliot Taylor said the news of lower-stakes exams would bring relief to many of his classmates.

“I think 20 per cent is reasonable to compromise,” he said. “And I think it should stay that way for a while, because there are a lot of really stunted classes because of the pandemic.”

The government’s plan is to bring the tests back to their usual 30 per cent weighting during the 2023-24 school year.

Also relieved is Mavis Averill, superintendent of the Boyle Street Education Centre – a charter high school in downtown Edmonton that caters to youth who have struggled in the conventional school system.

The pandemic has been exceptionally disruptive for Boyle Street students, many of who were already vulnerable and living in uncertain conditions, Averill said.

Nudging the value of those exams down will help students who are balancing stressful lives, and sometimes parenthood, with getting a diploma.

“We support diploma exams,” Averill said. “It’s just a real challenge for our youth to be there on that particular day, sometimes.”

All students across the province write the exams synchronously, at one of five time points during the year, to prevent cheating.

Bill Romanchuk has watched the pandemic exacerbate student exam stress. The superintendent of Leduc-based Black Gold School Division says requests for exam accommodations have jumped. That could include more time for exam writing, or supervising some students in a private room.

Romanchuk supports the government easing the pressure on students.

“If they have one less stressor, then, if that enhances their learning, then that’s a good decision,” he said.

Romanchuk said the change won’t affect how teachers prepare students, who also need to be ready to write high-stakes exams in post-secondary education.

However, teachers have a harder time motivating some students to take diploma exams seriously if they are worth less, says Heather Quinn, president of Edmonton Public Teachers local 37.

Teachers told Quinn this was a problem when the exams were worth 10 per cent last spring, and had less bearing on students’ final mark.

But take note, students – the education ministry says the transcripts they send to post-secondary institutions show both teacher-assigned grades and the exam results.

Quinn said the diploma exam tweak isn’t enough of a change to prompt recovery from pandemic learning loss.

Some high school teachers have between 37 and 43 students in their classes. Those students need more teachers, smaller class sizes, and more educational assistants to give them more individual attention and identify what they’ve missed, she said.

“You want to see some actual, genuine progress in what they feel is learning loss over the pandemic?” Quinn said. “Put your money where your mouth is.”

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