Will new curriculum make the grade? 

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO - Be wary The scaling back of provincial exams raises many questions.
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  • Be wary The scaling back of provincial exams raises many questions.

B.C.'s education system has been in and out of the news for months.

You could be forgiven for just turning the page when you see the headlines; teachers and school boards say funding cuts are devastating schools, the government says funding is up.

The latest came last week with the announcement of more changes to the curriculum.

I don't think anyone would argue that education needs an upgrade every generation or so (yes, that statement is supposed to be laced with sarcasm), but since every change is like watching an experiment unfold and hoping you get a good outcome, it comes with a certain amount of stress.

This stress is by no means limited to students, parents and teachers.

Everyone should be stressed — after all every business owner, hospital, courtroom, home builder — just name an occupation — will be impacted by this.

How kids are educated at school obviously has a direct impact on how they perform in the real world.

B.C. is in Year 2 of its three-year transition to a new curriculum, which was implemented by the Ministry of Education to "modernize" the education system. It says the new curriculum will include flexible learning environments — where students can learn in the field — and put a greater focus on complex skills like critical thinking and communication.

The change is also eliminating provincial exams. They will be replaced by in-class assessments and two written assessments in math and literacy sometime between Grades 10 and 12.

What these will look like is still up in the air.

Until June 30 of this year students had to write five provincial exams: Math 10, Science 10, English 10, Social Studies 11 and English 12.

The value of exams has been much discussed with heated proponents on both sides. And the debate is further divided on the value of exams for those going onto post-secondary study versus those heading out into the workforce. Unfortunately, not a lot of research has looked specifically at the effect writing exams has on performance in university.

In one study, University of Saskatchewan researchers followed incoming students for three successive years. Published in 2011, the study found the averages of exam-experienced Alberta students dropped 6.4 percentage points from Grade 12, while the marks of their counterparts from four other non-exam provinces fell by as much 19.6 percentage points.

But consider this — in 2010 Harvard University reversed its exam policy. Previously the school used to schedule a three-hour final exam for every arts and science course unless a professor specifically requested an exemption. Now professors are required to notify administrators only when they want a seated exam. In 2010 only 23 per cent of undergraduate courses and just three per cent of graduate courses at the Ivy League school had final exams.

Perhaps the key is to make sure that students have a variety of ways of showing their learning. Some students are naturals at presenting publicly; others excel in tests and exams or through project work. In the real world all these types of assessment happen in the workplace and indeed in the activities we love to play at as well.

The big question for B.C. students though is how standards of education are to be maintained and assessed.

Of course we all know that incredible teacher who we would do anything to have educate our kids. But there are also educators who will need help to make this new curriculum work, and while the change is being implemented, the students may pay the price.

Most teachers, I would argue, feel that this new curriculum is coming in too fast, with too little training, not enough resources and definitely not enough funding.

According to the information released, the universities have been consulted and support the changes.

But how will the system account for a teacher that marks really hard in one school while another is an easy grader the next district over?

The Alberta government has changed the weight it gives its standardized exams after becoming concerned the province's students were being disadvantaged. The exams will now only account for 30 per cent of the final grade, down from 50 per cent.

This comes after research in the province showed the diploma exams lowered the final marks of Alberta students by an average of 3.5 per cent, affecting students' ability to get into universities across the country.

Who's to say that schools won't start to see grade inflation? After all, these days schools are adopting alternative programs, new academies and so on to attract students from all over and bring their funding with them. If schools can show a high number of students getting into universities, that could be very attractive to prospective parents.

Once the student is away to university the school is off the hook for performance.

What parents don't want to see is the learning shifted so that the student has full control, as can happen in Project-Based Learning, with teachers simply marking as opposed to teaching.

Teachers know how to impart learning to their students. The concern is whether the new curriculum allows them to teach in a dynamic way that helps all students.

I guess we will have to watch this experiment unfold before we grade it.



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