Thinking about Diploma Exams – the dilemma of a teacher

What I teach in the class is usually not mirrored perfectly by the diploma exams. The types of questions I ask on my tests are different from those posed on the provincial exam. The topics emphasized by me (due to my preference or what I think is more important content) are not always the ones emphasized in the examinations at the end of the year. Therefore, when teaching such a course, during the final part of the year, I spend time on preparing my students for the provincial tests.

As a class, we go through old exams, to practice the style and type of questions that are usually given. This time is not really a revision of the material, but a small course on how to write this specific type of exam. During this time, I am not an enemy of the students (not that I ever am, but students think this way once and again). Now the atmosphere becomes: US against THEM: what will “they” try to throw at “us”.

Teaching at this time is very straight forward. The students don’t offer much resistance: for instance, they never say “Why do we need to learn this?” In fact they are very keen on coming to class for these revision sessions. The reason: the students themselves know the exams are extremely important. I have had students ask me why we learned anything else all year, when this (material on the exam) was all we really needed.

I sometimes wonder whether these exams are a waste of time. Is it really good teaching when all I do is “teach to the test”? But then I realized that these provincial exams (worth up to 30% of the student’s final mark) are huge motivators for both the teacher and the student. Without these exams, the student wouldn’t be forced to review the curriculum (and for some students this means learn for the first time), and the teacher wouldn’t be forced to teach the exact curriculum. The more I write, the more I’m convinced, that standardized testing is a necessity.

This year, with the pandemic, the diploma exams are not mandatory – students (and their parents) can decide whether they will take them. I am in constant conflict with myself and my fellow teachers trying to decide whether I should encourage or discourage my students from attempting these difficult end of year exams.

On one hand, it is nice to have the power in my own class to teach what I think is necessary. Not to worry about how the writers word questions, how the answers in the multiple choice questions are there to trick the students. I can skip the “review unit” that I have already planned in my long range plan, and instead I can give my students more in-depth teaching and learning throughout the year. This extra time and lack of stress for the students seems like a gift. I would argue that not having to teach to the test is the dream for most teachers.

On the other hand, having that stress of the diploma exam makes students, in my opinion, actually learn better. I have no power about the exam. I cannot scale the test if students do poorly, I cannot make it easier, and I cannot mark it easier: it is out of my control – I know it and my students know it. Therefore, the teaching by me and learning by the students takes on an objective flare, and the learning by the students is absolutely genuine. They need to REALLY know the material. If a question is not quite phrased similarly to what I have done in the past, students need to improvise with their true understanding and skill. Having that exam at the end, I think, takes the learning to a higher level.

But then again, I think of the students themselves – without the exam, their stress would diminish. Without the exam, their mark is not at risk of decreasing. Without the exam, their chances of entering university is not at risk. Without the exam, I can take my time and teach the content slower, and potentially better.

What to do, what to do….