Why not gauge progress with a follow-up exam?

Originally published by The Chronicle Herald, June 28, 2012. Original Link

Is it possible to walk and chew gum at the same time?

Apparently not, at least when it comes to education policy in Nova Scotia.

Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, Nova Scotia’s Education Department will change the grade levels at which standardized exams are written.

The most notable change is moving math and literacy exams out of Grade 12 and into Grade 10.

The government defended its decision by arguing that writing the exams earlier gives schools an opportunity to correct problems identified by the assessment. That part seems reasonable enough.

Getting reliable information about student achievement earlier in high school could help teachers better focus their instruction.

What doesn’t make sense is the notion that adding standardized exams in Grade 10 necessitates their removal in Grade 12. Assessment of student learning is not a zero-sum-game and there is no reason to assume students cannot write standardized exams twice in their high school career.

It’s like a car manufacturing plant adding an extra inspection earlier in the assembly line process but simultaneously removing any requirement to inspect the final product.

Without that final check at the end, no one knows whether the car was actually built properly.

Similarly, removing the Grade 12 standardized exams makes it impossible to determine whether schools have been successful in helping students master the basics.

In addition, during the transition period, no high school students will write any standardized exams at all.

Next year, neither Grade 10 nor Grade 12 students will write standardized exams which means no data will be collected on either of these student groups. It is disappointing that the government is willing to let several entire grades slip through the cracks.

Most other provinces require Grade 12 students to write standardized exams in some subjects. High-performing provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia require Grade 12 students to write standardized exams as does Newfoundland and Labrador.

Even Manitoba, the province that has systematically dismantled its standardized testing system over the last 13 years, has chosen to keep its Grade 12 exams.

Since many high school graduates go on to post-secondary education, it is important they be prepared for the reality that they will write many exams in college or university.

Writing a provincial final exam in their last year of school is an excellent way of preparing students for what lies ahead.

The current assessment philosophy in vogue across the country, including in Nova Scotia, is known as assessment for learning.

It emphasizes the distinction between formative assessment (preliminary feedback) and summative assessment (final tests/exams).

Because of this philosophy, teachers are encouraged to make assessment more about giving constructive feedback than simply measuring academic progress at the end.

When applied to standardized exams, it’s not difficult to see why the province wants students to write them at earlier grade levels so as to better use them to inform instructional practice.

What doesn’t logically follow is the idea that summative assessment becomes less important. You need both formative and summative assessment.

Thus, a balanced approach to the standardized exam issue would be to have students write standardized exams in both grades 10 and 12.

We don’t have to look far to see how this could look. In the Chignecto-Central regional school board, students currently write standardized tests in Grade 10 along with the provincially mandated Grade 12 exams.

Obviously this isn’t a problem, since their students have the highest academic average in the province.

Lest anyone claim standardized testing is an economic hardship, it should be noted that the entire budget of Evaluation Services is approximately $3 million while the provincial education budget is $1.1 billion.

This works out to less than 0.3 per cent of the total education budget. Thus, adding or subtracting one standardized exam has virtually no impact on the bottom line.

The Nova Scotia government should do the right thing and keep standardized exams in Grade 12 while still adding them at Grade 10.

More information about student achievement is always a good thing. In this case, we can have our cake and eat it too.


Sometimes students deserve to get a zero

Originally published by the Calgary Herald, June 10, 2012 Original Link

How much should a pilot get paid if she never flies a plane? How about a doctor who never treats a patient? Or a car salesman who fails to sell a single car?

If you answered zero, you live in the real world.

Employees don’t get paid for doing nothing. It’s common sense.

However, many schools seem to have a different perspective. For example, many school administrators have introduced a grading-for-learning approach, part of which prohibits teachers from giving a mark of zero to students with incomplete assignments. Instead of a zero, teachers must assess students only on the work they actually submit.

In other words, students who don’t hand in many assignments can still pass their courses if they do well on the few assignments they do submit.

Lynden Dorval teaches high school physics at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School. With 35 years of experience, he recently refused to comply with the absurd grading policy that prohibited teachers from assigning zeros for incomplete work. He went on giving zeros despite several warnings from his principal. Eventually, he was suspended and could very well lose his job.

From a legalistic perspective, the school board has every right to discipline Dorval. According to Alberta’s School Act, school boards may suspend teachers who fail to follow a lawful directive from the board. While the assessment policy in question may be misguided, teachers are required to follow lawful directives from their employer.

Schools could not function if teachers disregarded any policy they disagreed with.

That being said, most people recognize there is something intuitively wrong with an assessment policy that prohibits teachers from assigning zeros for work that has not been done. The fact that many of Dorval’s colleagues and students are rallying behind him should also be a clear sign that something is seriously amiss. The superintendent and principal are defending a policy that may be lawful, but which most members of the public consider illegitimate and indefensible.

On June 1, Edmonton superintendent Edgar Schmidt published an open letter to defend the indefensible. In that letter, he defends the current policy of not giving zeros and tries to present it as a superior way of holding students accountable.

“Our approach to missed assignments is to work with each student to find out the reason they did not turn in an assignment. Once a teacher finds out the reason, they work with the student to come up with a solution to address the situation. They agree to a plan to turn in future assignments and the teacher holds the student accountable,” Schmidt said.

The explanation fails to address the fact that some high school students simply choose not to do their work. Dorval didn’t automatically assign zeros to students the moment an assignment didn’t come in. Rather, he worked with students and reminded them regularly of the importance of submitting their work. When that fails, however, there needs to be a tangible consequence for those students who choose not to submit assignments. The new assessment policy naively ignores the realities of human nature.

Ross Sheppard High in Edmonton is by no means the first to experiment with this failed approach. In fact, Manitoba and Ontario had provincial assessment policies that prohibited or strongly discouraged teachers from deducting marks from late assignments or assigning a mark of zero for incomplete work. However, strong opposition from the public in both instances led the governments to retreat from this policy.

It never had to be this way. Many aspects of the socalled grading-for-learning approach are positive and would likely have broad-based public support. For example, grading-for-learning encourages teachers to drop the common practice of basing individual student assessment on group assignments. It also makes a clearer distinction between assignments given for the purpose of preliminary feedback (formative assessment) and final marks (summative assessment). These are sensible reforms, but they have been overshadowed by the no-zeros policy.

School administrators have a choice. They can focus on common sense assessment reforms that would have broad-based public support, or they can stand behind a foolish no-zeros policy supported by a handful of education consultants.

Let’s hope common sense prevails. Teachers should be able to give zeros to students who choose not to submit their assignments.

Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a public high school teacher. He is co-author of the book, What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.