Grade 12 exams headed back to class in Manitoba

Manitoba’s future Grade 12 students will not be spared from taking high-stakes provincial exams after all.

The education department has done a U-turn in its approach to modernizing its assessment schedule and as a result, the Class of 2024, and those that succeed it, will have to complete the systemwide tests that were standard before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Government officials had said a new Grade 10 evaluation would replace the longstanding examinations in final-year courses, each of which are weighted between 20 and 30 per cent of a student’s overall course grade.

But in a letter this week, Education Minister Wayne Ewasko told superintendents and independent school principals there is room for, and value in, undertaking old and new traditions.

“We believe the introduction of this Grade 10 provincial evaluation will better prepare students for their individual paths beyond Grade 12,” Ewasko wrote in the Feb. 6 notice.

“The Grade 10 provincial evaluation will also provide an important benchmark for every student. In order to gauge the impact of the Grade 10, 11 and 12 interventions, the Grade 12 provincial tests in mathematics and language arts will also be resumed by January 2024.”

The onset of the pandemic led the province to suspend its timed and cumulative Grade 12 tests in March 2020.

The end-of-course exams were cancelled indefinitely the following autumn, owing to a flurry of concerns about student and teacher anxiety, as well as issues related to fairness and validity because of a patchwork of in-person learning disruptions.

Before the current school year got underway, Manitoba Education indicated the exams would not return and cited recommendations by the 2019 commission on K-12 education.

The Tories accepted all of the commission’s calls to action “in spirit and principle.” Recommendation No. 59 of 75 touts the creation of modern curriculum-based tests for mathematics and literacy at Grades 3 or 4, 6 or 7, and 10, and making school-level scores available to the public.

A senior government official told the Free Press ongoing conversations within the department have led to the recognition that there is “equally important value” in continuing to offer final-year tests.

“As we emerge out of the pandemic and we see the impact on students, to a varying extent… We want to seize the opportunity to have as much provincial data that we can to inform our decisions,” the official said, adding the Grade 12 results will continue to provide a “rear view” snapshot of a student’s overall education.

A group of Grade 10 teachers is working to define the skills that they and their colleagues will be assessing in 2023-24. The new evaluation is expected to measure how well learners mastered content and competencies from Grade 9 and rather than centre around a one-and-done test, drawn from a series of student works.

Increased data collection and monitoring will ensure teachers can spot areas that need improvement early in a cohort’s high school career and the province can pinpoint where it needs to strengthen curriculum and instruction implementation, the department said.

Outside the provincial assessment schedule, teachers measure student learning daily with ongoing and cumulative activities including one-on-one conversations, oral presentations, research projects, group work and traditional tests.

High school teacher Robbie Scott said the decision to revive the provincial exams came as a pleasant surprise because he sees tests as important tools to instil in learners the importance of preparation and stress management.

“Life is full of stress and so, what we do in school is we set up some seemingly stressful situations — (although) I don’t want to minimize it’s real stress for some people — but then you see the strategies, and students learn through practice, through exposure to some stress and that with preparation, you succeed,” said the Winnipeg-based physics and computer science educator.

It makes sense to expose students to exams before they reach Grade 12, Scott said, adding teachers always make accommodations to support learners who are in particularly challenging circumstances.

There has been a growing shift away from assigning anxiety-inducing tests in light of the pandemic heightening concerns about student well-being. Two Winnipeg divisions have asked their employees to refrain from giving term finals worth more than 10 per cent of a course grade.

“Our position is to respect teacher autonomy, and the teacher in the classroom is the best source of information on how your child is doing in school,” said James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.

The union leader acknowledged MTS advocated for an exam hiatus early on in the pandemic, but he said a sense of normalcy has returned to society and teachers have a responsibility to prepare graduates for life after high school — which, in many cases, includes post-secondary education.

Bedford noted Grade 12 provincial tests are developed alongside members and marked by them.

The province is open to discussing the future weight of Grade 12 assessments, a senior department employee said, adding officials encourage teachers to use a variety of assessments, exams included, so students are not overwhelmed in their final year.

Manitoba has yet to determine if and how it will publish school-based data on assessment outcomes.

Twitter: @macintoshmaggie

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press