Skip to main content

Why I Love Teaching, But Hate Diploma Exams

If you already recognize the title to this blog post, you may have noticed that I basically stole it from Suli Breaks and his great spoken word poem, "Why I hate School, But Love Education" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_ZmM7zPLyI). I think almost every student at one point in their lives has uttered the phrase "I hate school". As I teacher working with at-risk youth, almost all of my students come into my class with extremely negative feelings about school, teachers, and anything related to it. It takes a long time to work through the "educational baggage" that students have in order to help them understand that a truly good education can benefit them in many ways.

Working through this "educational baggage" is one of the many reasons why I love being a teacher. I love the long term process of breaking down student perceptions of school, teachers, and the purpose of education. It literally keeps me up at night trying to invent new strategies that will lead students to feel in control and empowered about their learning process. However, when it comes to my grade 12 Social Studies class, I have to teach students how to succeed at writing their Diploma Examinations that will account for 50% of their grade 12 mark.

It's not hard to imagine that for a youth who has experienced many tragedies in school may find it a little overwhelming to write an exam that will make up 50% of their overall grade. This is especially a source of anxiety for students wishing to attend a post-secondary institution. However, I would argue that forcing students to prepare, learn, and write diploma exams stagnates their learning and essentially teaches them skills that they will no longer use outside school.

Think of a time in your professional career when your boss asked you to figure out a problem without using any resources and you weren't allowed to talk to anyone to receive help. As ridiculous as that sounds, that is essentially what we are asking students to do when writing a diploma exam that consists of multiple choice and timed writing assignments. The topics of the writing assignments are not known to students beforehand and could potentially be any topic covered in the vast social studies curriculum. I understand that proponents of the diploma exams want to ensure that when students complete a course that they should have mastered the knowledge and skills within it. However, if they do succeed, they are essentially mastering skills of memorization and how to write an essay in a constricted time period. How many times can you remember writing an exam and then immediately forgetting everything you learned studying for it?  How many of us are a "master" of anything when we're 17 years old? Why are we still doing this to our students?

I know that diploma exams are in place to ensure teacher accountability of teaching the curriculum and to act as a "leveling out" of the "epidemic" of teacher inflated grading. Basically, Alberta Education doesn't completely trust teachers to assess our students properly and needed to put diploma exams in place to have some control and regulation on student grades. Grading itself can be just as detrimental to student learning but that is an entire blog post on its own (Check out http://www.joebower.org/ for info on grading).

When it comes to student learning and education, we must ask what type of students we want to have in our schools and society. In an ideal world, our education system should produce students who are capable of critical thinking, problem solving, and strive to improve the world around them. However, when we teach students to write a test, instead of following their passions, we stifle their learning and make coming to school feel boring and pointless. Our classrooms should be a jumping off point for students to engage in a life-long process of learning and following what they are most passionate about. However, if more and more time is allotted for teaching students how to write a multiple choice exam, we do not allow the time for students to be curious and understand that true authentic learning is about not being afraid to fail. Unfortunately, the diploma exam only heightens the sense of failure for students who end up passively and obediently accepting their lot in the educational system to do as they're told, and not challenge the prevailing system that stagnates their learning.

We should take a lesson from another Suli Breaks spoken word poem, "I Will Not Let An Exam Result Decide My Fate"(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-eVF_G_p-Y). If we hear these passionate words, we can begin to move our education system and assessment practices to more authentic measuring of a students ability to learn. Our obsession with grading, testing, and quantifying learning is having a terrible impact on our students that is killing their natural love of learning. It's time we leave archaic forms of standardized testing in the past and move towards the future of learning that encourages creativity, curiosity, risk-taking, and problem solving.

Alberta teachers, I encourage you to let your voices be heard and let Alberta Education (http://education.alberta.ca/), and Jeff Johnson (Minister of Education Twitter: https://twitter.com/JeffJohnsonMLA) know how Diploma Exams are impacting your students. It's time we have a real conversation about how our students learn and what the purpose of our education system should be.

Comments