In a move that's sure to elicit cheers, the province says Grade 12 provincial exams scheduled for early next year have been cancelled, owing to learning disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"While some students have returned to full in-class learning scenarios, many have not. The implementation of a provincial test in this context raises questions around the fairness to students and the validity of the data if the tests were to proceed," Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen wrote in a letter to education stakeholders Thursday.
Much like in the spring, final-year students enrolled in mathematics, English Language Arts and French this fall will not have to take the annual timed exams.
Grade 12 student Ella Dela Cruz said she felt relieved after learning her January English exam has been cancelled.
“There was no need to start the school year with this pressure hanging overhead.” – High school teacher Darcia Jones
"Some kids are already stressed with what’s going on with the pandemic and adding online learning with in-person school makes it worse," said Dela Cruz, 16, who attends Sisler High School.
"It’s just overwhelming to include the exams at a time like this, so I’m very happy and relieved they cancelled it."
A decision about second-semester finals, which are scheduled for May-June 2021, is expected in February.
Goertzen said the temporary suspension will allow teachers to focus on recovery learning, adapt their classroom practices as the public health situation warrants and respond to mental health and well-being concerns of students. "(It) may help alleviate anxiety on the part of both teachers and students," he added.
When high school teacher Darcia Jones learned about the decision, she had "a little celebratory yell" in her classroom.
Jones, who teaches Grade 11 and 12 English in Winnipeg, has been outspoken about her belief provincial exams should be a write-off this year, given the unprecedented challenges facing the education system. (She said Thursday her Grade 12 English class is about two weeks behind schedule because of all the catch-up required this term.)
"There was no need to start the school year with this pressure hanging overhead," she said, adding she doesn’t think it will be "fair or reasonable" for students to take the exams in the springtime, either.
The timed tests are written during several days and worth between 20 and 30 per cent of a final-year student’s mark in their respective course. In English, students write the test for three hours on the first day, and for one hour during each of the following three days.
"They’re problematic at the best of times and in a year like this, I think it's definitely an appropriate decision to suspend them," said Martha Koch, an assistant professor of education at the University of Manitoba, who teaches courses on mathematics education and educational assessment.
Rather than level the playing field, Koch said provincial exams give a false sense educators are getting a "clear picture" of student learning in Manitoba. The exams disadvantage students who struggle to demonstrate their learning in a written format and under anxiety-inducing timed conditions, she said.
“This relieves a bit of that pressure, a bit of that anxiety — and there’s enough anxiety going on right now.” – James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society
Koch’s preference is to place greater emphasis on the day-to-day work students do in classrooms — and during the pandemic, virtual classrooms. She said she’d like to see the exams count for less of every student’s mathematics grade, and if there ever was a time to review how assessment is done, it’s during a pandemic.
The president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society called the announcement "the right decision."
"This relieves a bit of that pressure, a bit of that anxiety — and there’s enough anxiety going on right now," said James Bedford, listing off stresses related to enforcing physical distancing and mask-wearing in classrooms, as well as concerns about individual and family health.
Bedford added the suspension will relieve teachers of the pressures to power-through the curriculum to cover everything before the exams.
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.