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The Problem is the Teachers

December 5, 2014

Earlier this week, I came across an article written by a former Director of Math/Science Diploma Examinations. I found it a very interesting read given the background of the author, Ken Marcellus. Mr. Marcellus has far more experience than I do with the construction of the diploma exam. My experience rests in the preparation, administration, marking and aftermath of the exam.

The Issue

In his article, Mr. Marcellus argues that reducing the weighting of the diploma exam from 50% to 30%, as suggested by the Alberta School Boards Association, is unfair to students. He suggests that for the majority of students, this change will not have an impact at all. However, for other students it will have an immense impact. He writes:

“It’s those students who have extenuating circumstances that will be affected, those who experience one or more of the following circumstances: the standard in the classroom is much higher or much lower than that set by the diploma examination; the student is favoured, or disfavoured, by the teacher; and/or the students are not taught the Provincial Program of Studies.”

Mr. Marcellus puts forward three reasons for lack of success on a diploma exam, all related to teacher performance. Either we like the students, dislike the students, or we don’t teach what we are supposed to. That is why reducing the weighting of the test is not fair.

He goes on later in the piece to write:

“There have been arguments against the weighting of diploma examinations regarding ‘test anxiety.’ There is no such thing as ‘test anxiety’.”

Mr. Marcellus writes about his own struggles with anxiety and puts forward the argument that anxiety can be dealt with. His success speaking to large groups of people, the completion of his own diploma exams and the defense of his master’s thesis are proof of this.

Clearly Mr. Marcellus holds the diploma exams in high regard. My question is why? If in fact the diploma exam is a final, summative assessment of student learning, one would think post secondary institutions around the country would hinge acceptance upon the grade achieved on the diploma exam. That is not the case. The University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, and other universities around the country do not hold them in nearly as much regard. These universities use grade 11 and early grade 12 marks to provide conditional acceptance to students. In some universities outside of Alberta, students are given the option of submitting only their course awarded marks. Clearly, universities do not put as much value in the diploma exams.

My second issue is with the treatment of conetextualized or situational anxiety, or, test anxiety. I’m not certain of Mr. Marcellus’ background in psychology but to suggest to hundreds of students that test anxiety is a figment of their imagination is insulting. Situational anxiety related to performing well on the diploma exam is a real issue for hundreds of students. Many of these students take extra tutorial courses and spend countless hours preparing for the exam. For some, this works to perform well on the test. For others, it doesn’t. No matter what they do, they perform poorly. They may be able to explain all of the core concepts and ideas related to the course. They may know the course inside and out. But, when it comes to the exam, they do poorly. As such, their overall mark can suffer.

The Answer

At this point, I believe the Alberta School Boards Association made the correct decision in petitioning Alberta Education in reducing the weighting of the Diploma Exam. But there is more work to do. There needs to be a discussion about the purpose of the exam. Given Mr. Marcellus’ comments, I am left to believe that he sees the exam as a an accountability measure for teachers rather than an assessment of student learning. The treatment of diploma exam scores by post secondary institutions around the country would further this idea. I am not opposed to accountability measures for teachers. I just don’t see how a 50% summative exam is beneficial to students. I would be very interested to bring the student voice into this discussion and ask them. It would be very interesting to hear their thoughts.

As always, I appreciate feedback and comments. Should you wish to read Ken Marcellus original piece, you can find it here:

Thank you for taking the time to read. Have a great day,



From → Diploma Exams

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