Janice Paskey, for Postmedia

As thousands of Grade 12 students write diploma exams this week, and next here are a few things to know:

Math 30-1
Many hope for an easier exam than January 2016, which had the worst student result in five years. Only 24.1 per cent achieved over 80 per cent of the 11,607 writers. Meanwhile, 30.2 per cent failed — the most ever.

One math tutor suggested January’s exam was harder than usual because of the lower 30 per cent weighting. Alberta Education said it expects variability and each group of students writing “is unique.”

Math 30-1 is a demanding pre-calculus course and required for competitive university programs where a minimum 80 per cent score is necessary, so not achieving this mark defeats the purpose of taking it.

Calgary Catholic honours student Antonio Kancsal was one of the cohorts with “many more unexpected results” in the words of one high school math teacher.

Kancsal went into the January diploma exam with an 87 per cent class mark and obtained 60 per cent. He applied (and paid $26.25) to rewrite the test and salvaged his bid for engineering school but saw his first choice slip away.

Queen Elizabeth High School student Cort Dawnne did well with a 90 per cent final Math 30-1 mark but said he relied on weekly private tutoring to make up for “short weeks,” and “cramming two lessons in one” at his Calgary Board of Education school. He will study business at SAIT this fall and hopes to open a skateboard shop.

The numbers of hours in the classroom have declined for some high school students owing to collective bargaining and “school redesign.” One Calgary principal wondered if large class sizes for this cohort also had a negative effect on math diploma marks.

Math 30-1 and Math 30-2.

These exams have 40 multiple choice and numerical questions — the fewest number of all the diploma exams. This means a mistake on a question is penalized greater than other diploma exams.

English 30-1

This is the toughest course in which to achieve over 80 percent.

In the 2014-2015 school year, just 13.7 per cent of CBE students achieved over 80 per cent while Calgary Catholic students averaged 10.7 per cent. Top performing CBE schools were Queen Elizabeth and Western Canada (schools with gifted and IB programs), while St. Timothy and Bishop Carroll led the Calgary Catholic School District with nearly three times as many students as average achieving excellence.

Provincewide, last year’s English 30-1 exam writers had just over 11.5 per cent achieving over 80 per cent. The Alberta government’s goal is to have 88 per cent passing diploma language arts and 11.8 per cent of that number achieve over 80 per cent.

English 30-1 has multiple choice and a written component marked out of five, which makes it difficult to do well unless a student is a native English speaker, and has had good, systematic writing coaching, say sources.

No More Written Responses
A few years ago, Alberta Education got rid of written responses for math, chemistry, biology and physics. The province says scores on multiple choice and written responses were high and students are accurately assessed without written responses.

However, educators like retired high school math teacher Patricia Gilchrist criticized this move as a cost-cutting measure that weakened the integrity of the exam.

“It’s important to credit the thought and process that go into reaching an answer,” said Gilchrist. “The great thing about a written response was that students could score well if the work was right but they had made a simple calculation error.”

She noted that students can guess in multiple choice and still get a correct answer.

Another high school math teacher commented: “A student can know a whole lot and still get a multiple choice question wrong. That’s discouraging.”

Multiple choice may be expedient to mark, but there are strong arguments against using exclusive multiple choice exams as the best assessment method.

Numerical Responses
Six science diploma exams have numerical answers that one teacher bluntly described “as confusing as hell.”

Take this question, for example:

Use the following additional information to answer the next question.

Functions of Some Eye Structures

1. Translates light stimuli into nerve impulses
2. Bends light as it first passes into the eye
3. Regulates the amount of light entering the eye
4. Protects the eye and maintains its shape

Match three of the functions listed above with the eye structures given below.

Structure: Sclera Cornea Retina

(Record all three digits of your answer in the numerical-response section below.)

Exams are Secret from Students
Bafflingly, students are not allowed to see their marked diploma exams and will not learn from their mistakes.

Their teachers can see the whole original exam under the supervision of their principal for a three-hour period. But educators are required to destroy their notes because some of the questions are reused. Students can pay for a “rescore” — if they cough up $26.25.

There are field tests to help students and teachers prepare. Teachers can also participate in developing the diploma exams. The province has good subject summaries online.

Diploma Weighting
The move from a 50 to 30 per cent diploma weighting this year has mixed reviews. Some liked the “level playing field” of a standardized test.

“There is no guarantee that any two subject area teachers will give the same assignments, mark and weight them the same. So to some people the exam was the great leveler,” a Calgary private school teacher wrote after seeing her child in the public system receive a diploma mark 22 per cent higher than a class mark in Math 30-2 this year.

Others cite the pressure of performance on one day and class bias favouring wealthier students who can afford tutoring services as a reason to reduce the weighting.

Alberta Education notes, “Initial feedback from teachers indicates that some students are focusing more on their classroom studies given the increased weighting.”

Tutoring Decline
Alberta Education wants to reduce the reliance on pricy tutoring prep courses.

Prof. Lissa D’Amour trains math teachers at the University of Calgary’s Werkland School and cautions that teachers fear students who rely on tutoring may not do the day-to-day work of learning the course.

She’s confident most students, with proper preparation and understanding, can do well on diploma math courses.

Diploma Accommodations
Students with disabilities do the worst on diploma exams. One major accommodation is additional time to write.

But John Williamson, while an education student at the U of C, argues in an academic article that diploma accommodations don’t work.

“Is the accommodation of twice the writing time may render the examination an excessively gruelling experience,” Williamson wrote. “In such a case, the students’ optimal levels of concentration and focus abilities are exhausted long before the provided time is over?”

In the Business Plan
There are modest diploma achievement goals for aboriginal and non-aboriginal students, and a goal for percentage of students writing four or more diploma exams written within three years of Grade 10. It’s 54.9 per cent with a goal of 55.7 per cent in three years.

Student Voice
There’s no evidence that students have any voice or say in their diploma exams, including the questions, scoring or material.

Note: The writer spoke to five teachers, five students, two principals, one tutor and one guidance counsellor for this article. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity as they were fearful of reprisals from their school board or felt they were not authorized to speak to the media.

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