October 19, 2020

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Teachers urge pandemic pause of standard Grade 12 tests

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Manitoba teachers want the province to acknowledge standardized testing is designed for standard school years.

As Grade 12 students enter a semester unlike any other, a growing number of educators are questioning the usefulness of holding provincial exams to assess students during a pandemic that has disrupted traditional schooling and heightened anxiety.

The province called off the annual mathematics, English Language Arts and French tests in the spring, owing to COVID-19. The tests are worth between 20 and 30 per cent of a final-year student’s mark in their respective course.

The exams are expected to resume this year, with the first batch scheduled for early January.

"When Minister Goertzen said he was going to put mental health at the forefront, to me, the easiest way to do that is to eliminate an exam worth 30 per cent of the final mark. Even in the best of circumstances, students feel stressed out by these exams," said Darcia Jones, a Grade 11 and 12 English teacher in Winnipeg.

"When Minister Goertzen said he was going to put mental health at the forefront, to me, the easiest way to do that is to eliminate an exam worth 30 per cent of the final mark. Even in the best of circumstances, students feel stressed out by these exams." ‐ Darcia Jones, a Grade 11 and 12 English teacher

The time-intensive exams are typically written during several days. In English, students work on the test for three hours on the first day, and for one hour during each of the following three days.

The logistics of squeezing recovery learning into an already packed curriculum, while focusing course content on what will be on the provincial exams, will be a headache, as will organizing provincial exams for dozens of students with physical distancing in mind and without disrupting younger students’ alternating schedules, Jones said.

The long-time teacher’s biggest concern is the validity of the tests during the 2020-21 academic year.

Combined, the spring school disruptions, pandemic-related stresses and an upcoming blended learning year mean incoming Grade 12s will be at a disadvantage compared to previous classes, Jones said. "I don't think that testing in the way we’ve always done is reasonable, considering the school year isn't going to be anywhere close to what we’ve always done."

A spokesperson for Manitoba Education said in a statement schools will be notified if the public health situation warrants a change in the provincial exam schedule. If the exams are cancelled, other forms of assessment will be used to determine student marks, the spokesperson added. That’s what happened in June.

Aimee Kornelsen, a high school math teacher in rural Manitoba, said she would prefer to test her Grade 12s with a similar exam — likely, older versions of applied or pre-calculus provincial exams — but without the daunting provincial exam title.

"I think my students would be able to learn better if there wasn't this provincial exam hanging over their heads," Kornelsen said, adding that not only are students about to enter an unprecedented academic year, but they will also be doing so without extracurricular outlets since many sports and activities have been put on hold.

"It’s an important issue and it’s one that the society is going to be looking at in the coming weeks." ‐ James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society

Jones and Kornelsen share the view that suspending the exams will not reduce the integrity of courses, but rather reduce student stress. "The focus has to be on teaching and learning, and welcoming kids back," Jones said.

In Grade 12 English, students learn how to hone their critical thinking skills, make sense of complicated texts and generate their own creative texts.

James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, said Wednesday the teachers’ concerns are valid. He did not take a stance on whether the provincial exams should be held next year.

"It’s an important issue and it’s one that the society is going to be looking at in the coming weeks," said Bedford, who represents approximately 16,000 teachers in Manitoba.

maggie.macintosh@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh

Maggie Macintosh
Reporter

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.

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