MindFight: Diploma exams should be… All multiple choice!

Last week, Alberta’s Education minister Dave Hancock announced that the written portions of math and science diplomas would be cut, leaving an entirely multiple choice exam.

Students and teachers alike were angered by the change for a variety of reasons. Some argued that students would never learn how to communicate how they got to answers. With so much on the line– diplomas are worth 50 per cent of a high school student’s final mark in those classes– parents maintain that teachers will teach to the final answer and not the process used to get there. This isn’t even possible in a math course. In many questions, a series of steps must be followed to arrive at an answer and students can’t learn how to find that answer without being taught the steps.

In previous years, partial marks were handed out when a student could prove that they knew only most of the steps, or else made a silly mistake along the way. The loss of partial marks for starting off in the right direction could lower averages, another cause for concern, but Hancock quickly dispelled that anxiety by saying there was no statistical difference between marks for written and multiple choice portions. If anything, one less exam should reduce the massive amount of stress students face at the end of their grade 12 year.

Students and parents should probably be focusing their anger towards some of the other cuts to education, which total $80 million in Alberta this year. Larger class sizes and reduced reserve funds will have a worse impact on high school grades than multiple choice diplomas. Grading written exams for math and science alone cost the provincial government almost $2 million each year and the subsequent savings will reduce cuts to other programs.

That being said, written answers for math and science exams make more sense than for social science or english diplomas. It’s much easier to make a valid argument and support a thought process in a math question than to write a solid paper in two hours. University or “real-life” situations that call for papers require research and writing skills well beyond what can be shown by sitting in a gym until your hand cramps up. If parents can trust teachers to instruct students how to think and take an educated position in these courses without proving so in an exam, then why can’t they with math and science? For social and english, it’s almost more important to show a process to support an argument than in math, but also much more difficult in the time frame.

Anyhow, everyone knows that the trick to high school english was remembering the definition of “pun,” and for social the starting date of the First World War. Multiple choice could cover those bases just fine.

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