The Grade 12 provincial math and English exams are coming back to Manitoba. While they were suspended for several years during the COVID-19 pandemic, the province recently announced plans to reinstate them next year.
Not everyone is happy to see these exams returning. Some educators think these exams are too narrow in their focus and do not assess students on things that matter, such as creativity and critical thinking skills.
For example, during a recent CBC interview, Matt Henderson, assistant superintendent at Seven Oaks School Division, questioned whether provincial exams can accurately gauge whether students are ready for the real world. He likened these exams to having students make a sandwich to determine whether they are ready to drive a car.
However, this is an absurd comparison. If we want to assess whether students have mastered the key outcomes covered in their math and English courses, having them write an exam at the end of the semester is a great way to do it. This way students can demonstrate their ability to, among other things, solve math problems and write English essays.
The same CBC article quoted other education experts who raised concerns that provincial exams are too stressful for students. But this ignores the fact that not all stress is harmful. Most people know that a certain amount of stress is required to get things done. In most occupations, employees face at least moderate levels of stress, and this can serve as a powerful motivator to get a job done and to do it well.
Thus, there’s nothing wrong with students feeling some anxiety prior to writing an exam. For many students, a moderate level of anxiety can be a powerful motivator for careful preparation, for reviewing material, and for practising key skills. These are good habits for everyone to develop.
In addition, a significant number of students will enrol in post-secondary education after they graduate, and universities have certainly not abolished exams. It would be unfortunate indeed if students never experienced a final exam prior to their first year of university. While schools obviously do more than just prepare students for university, they shouldn’t do less than that.
It’s important to note that provincial Grade 12 exams count for only 30 per cent of a student’s final grade. This means that the remaining 70 per cent is determined by the classroom teacher. Teachers will continue to use a variety of methods to assess their students and this ensures that the final grade is based on many different assessments throughout the semester.
Simply put, both teacher-created and standardized assessments are needed to provide a balanced picture of student achievement. Teachers are able to take local conditions into account when making their own tests, while standardized assessments ensure that the knowledge and skills embedded in the provincial curriculum are being taught and learned.
In short, the Grade 12 exams provide the province with information that it otherwise wouldn’t have available. If we want to know whether high school graduates have acquired key literacy and numeracy skills, it makes sense for all of them to write a provincial exam before they leave school.
Bringing back the Grade 12 exams was the right decision. They provide us with important information that we can use to improve our education system.
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.