Teachers and diplomas

By Gauntlet Editorial Board

Albertan high school graduates will remember well writing their diploma exams. The nerves, time spent with tutors or studying alone, time off as exams approached and the reserved satisfaction upon completion. Those tests are worth 50 per cent of a student’s grade, and while some receive an extra boost in their total score, for many the pressures and stress aren’t worth it. The Alberta Teachers’ Union is now hoping to have the weight of the diploma tests lowered (see “Weighting of Alberta diploma exams reconsidered,” page 4).

The diploma exam in Alberta used to make up the entire grade of the course. Moving its weight to 50 per cent accommodated students who have test anxiety (especially knowing the test will determine their entire grade), or who simply have a bad day.

The Alberta Teachers’ Union also claims that teachers should be given more responsibility in deciding the mark. After all, it’s the teachers who work with students the entire semester or longer, develop a knowledge of students’ skills, and are able to test in ways a standardized test cannot.

In contrast, the provincial government continues to defend the use of the diploma exam. A standardized test, they claim, is an effective way of minimizing teacher bias, because it prevents teachers from consciously or otherwise changing the marks of students based on factors like attendance and effort– factors which are of little help to universities in determining which students they should admit. The diploma exams are the only way to directly compare the performance of students across the province.

A serious worry with allowing teachers to determine a greater portion of the mark is that they will be allowed to choose the criteria for success based on the factors they find important. An obnoxious student who rarely chooses to attend class, but who happens to be brilliant in math might receive a lower mark from a teacher who values effort and character over pure ability. Whether this is fair or not is an open question. What’s important is that the grade from a teacher doesn’t reflect those value judgements.

A worry that cuts across both positions is the effectiveness of teaching students receive. Admission standards to bachelor of education programs show that teachers in Alberta are hardly picked from the best and brightest university graduates. Further, the union favours rewarding the number of years a teacher has been employed, rather than the performance of his or her students. This is a problem regardless of the weight of the diploma exam: bad teachers beget bad students. But at least with a diploma exam the school system will be able to identify those bad teachers more readily. (The next challenge, of course, is getting the union to do something about it.)

Universities can accept students based on criteria of their choosing. It’s tempting to think that if admissions departments wanted a standardized test they would have high school students write the sat, or develop a test of their own. With diploma exams the most universities will ever get is a province-wide standard.

The diploma exams are no panacea. But they are valuable enough to have a rightful place in determining the final grade high school students receive. Unfortunately, in the end grading of any sort will never account for all important factors. A student who performs well at a below-average high school seems to have accomplished a greater feat than a private school student with every opportunity. Those types of comparisons are only possible when equal markers are available, and there’s a good case to be made that universities should employ better statistical analysis to make such decisions.

Despite its successes, there are still many things wrong with Alberta’s education system, including access to equal education. Empowering teachers won’t work until major changes are made to the way the Alberta Teachers’ Union recruits and improves its employees. While the high school curriculum is certainly a complex issue, a split between teacher-based input and standardized diploma testing is, at least for now, the most responsible route.

Gauntlet Editorial Board

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