Schools embrace ‘progressive assessment’ Divisions shift away from high-stakes exams

High-stakes exams, once a rite of passage in high school, are becoming increasingly uncommon as teachers redefine what the end-of-semester looks like in classrooms across Manitoba.

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High-stakes exams, once a rite of passage in high school, are becoming increasingly uncommon as teachers redefine what the end-of-semester looks like in classrooms across Manitoba.

Grade 11 student Angelina Morris is wrapping up the first semester of 2022-23 with a creative writing project, open-book history test, and applied arithmetic evaluation.

No matter the outcome of the high schooler’s final math test, she has been assured her overall numeracy scores can only go up at this point in the term.

“I don’t think I’m missing out at all,” said Angelina, who praised Glenlawn Collegiate’s emphasis on smaller tests and project-based learning spread throughout the academic year.

“These less stressful ways to have our final assessments make it a lot easier for me to actually do well and demonstrate the skills that I do have.”

Glenlawn is among those embracing “progressive assessment” — a starkly different approach to traditional testing that often involves nervous learners sitting at desks equipped with partitions to complete timed, hours-long exams worth a hefty percentage of their final grades.

“We’ve been working here for many years at finding forms of assessment and grading — those are two different things — to help in student success and in mental wellness; they are very much tied because high-stakes exams equal anxiety in children,” said principal Dionne Potapinski, who oversees the education of roughly 900 high schoolers in the Louis Riel School Division.

In recent years, Winnipeg’s Louis Riel and St. James-Assiniboia school divisions have asked their staff members not to assign end-of-term exams valued at more than 10 per cent of a student’s course grade.

A shift away from make-or-break assessments started long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but recent learning disruptions forced all teachers to rethink their methods and measure student success within public health parameters.

Serious concerns about teenager wellbeing suddenly silenced the longstanding debate over the value of anxiety-inducing tests and in 2020, under pressure from parents, students and educators, Manitoba Education called off Grade 12 provincial exams.

The province has since terminated the tests that counted for between 20 to 30 per cent of a senior’s final grade in English, French and mathematics. A new Grade 10 exam is being developed in its place, in line with the K to 12 commission’s 2020 recommendations, and it remains unclear how much it will be weighted and when it will roll out.

“The pandemic pause provided educators with an opportunity to re-evaluate past practices. Final assessments (including exams, performances, projects, portfolios, etc.) continue in some courses, but the high stakes value placed upon them are being balanced with other assessments,” said Jordana Buckwold, acting assistant superintendent of education and administration in St. James-Assiniboia, in a statement.

As of the current term, the division — based on feedback collected from high school teams at the end of 2021-22 — has stopped suspending classes to hold exams. Pupils are now capping off semesters with in-class evaluations worth no more of their overall course mark than early-term projects and tests.

The Pembina Trails School Division has found the middle ground; its exam weeks have been rebranded as “strong endings,” among new titles that signal a shift has happened — and it has, but not to an extent where finals have been scrapped altogether.

Assistant superintendent Troy Scott described their approach coming out of the pandemic as one that allows teachers to decide what works best in their subject, while keeping in mind COVID-19 takeaways and best practices for evaluation.

“It’s not one or the other; it’s a balanced approach,” said the administrator who oversees divisionwide education services. “We want to have some alignment with universities.”

Tests that are bound to raise pulses are built into most postsecondary programs, including apprenticeships that culminate in Red Seal Exams.

The University of Manitoba’s Darja Barr, a senior instructor of mathematics and self-described “traditionalist,” recently met with a group of public school teachers worried about the move away from exams and instructional autonomy.

Barr indicated her frustration is that changes are being ushered in without meaningful and widespread consultations with teachers at secondary and postsecondary levels.

“These reforms keep happening — ‘let’s do outcomes-based assessments,’ ‘let’s do project-based learning, inquiry-based learning,’ ‘let’s talk about different styles of learners’ — but there’s no solid rigorous experimentation and data-collection to see whether these things are actually doing better for the students,” she said.

Robbie Scott, who teaches math and physics at Dakota Collegiate, is among those concerned that graduates who do not have exam experience will be at a disadvantage later in life when facing driver’s tests and other nerve-wracking situations.

“There’s other ways to assess. I get that. Not every student should have to write an exam in every course,” Scott said. But as far as the veteran teacher is concerned, the end of all mandatory exams simply answers short-term problems related to student stress and parent complaints.

It makes more sense to teach students stress management strategies than “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” he said, while noting schools have historically made accommodations to assist students who need extra time or support to succeed on assessments.

One teacher’s attempt to turn high-stakes exams into a healthy competition has resulted in a legendary artifact at Maples Collegiate: Dariusz Piatek’s wall of perfect Grade 12 precalculus tests.

Piatek is convinced the culture in his classroom is why students performed well on the standardized provincial exam over the years; the school’s average mark was typically between 75 and 80 per cent before the province put the tests on hiatus in 2020.

When reached on a recent school day, Piatek said he continues to treat tests like a “a kind of celebration” of knowledge. The career teacher added he is intentional about calling his new 30 per cent evaluation a “test” rather than “exam” because the latter term immediately overwhelms learners.

The lifting of similar tests at Glenlawn has prompted Jared Suderman to run mock math exams so Angelina and his other students can hone their study skills and go through the motions of preparing for and taking traditional tests without “relatively arbitrary stress.”

Suderman sees the change as one that gives him and his colleagues the ability to cater assessment to their students and subject areas.

“You don’t do your best learning when you’re stressed out and anxious about something. Recent brain science has proven that beyond the shadow of a doubt,” he said, adding COVID-19 has opened teachers’ eyes up to the mental health struggles students face and they cannot be ignored.

In lieu of a formal exam, students in his Grade 11 and 12 applied math test are meeting with him one-on-one to go over their assignments throughout the term, writing self-reflections and coming up with future numeracy goals.

Learning is more rigorous because the modern approach requires students to understand their mistakes and revisit them instead of abandoning concepts they have yet to grasp after a one-and-done test, according to the Elm Park-area school’s principal.

Potapinski said bonuses include students no longer skipping class if they are not ready for a big test and the freeing up of instructional time overall because teachers do not have to spend hours doing exam preparation and review.

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.


Updated on Monday, January 30, 2023 7:09 AM CST: Adds cutlines

Updated on Monday, January 30, 2023 10:06 AM CST: Rearranges photos

Updated on Monday, January 30, 2023 4:05 PM CST: Additional formatting

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