High school students bemoan rigid testing

Exams are a big part of student life, but both students and education experts say they may not be the best way to gauge how well students are learning.
Our student panel tells the CBC's Tiffany Tambeau what they thinking of standardized tests. 5:00

Exams are a big part of student life, but both students and education experts say they may not be the best way to gauge how well students are learning.

A group of high school students who spoke with CBC News said they're pleased with the courses they're offered, but they often disagree with how the material is taught — especially the frequent testing.

Emily Dewhurst said testing doesn't assess how well she knows the material. (CBC)
They said test results, specifically of the Ontario-wide standardized exams, don't reflect how well they know the subject material.

"It wasn't testing whether I understood the material, it was testing whether I could sit down to force myself to memorize the material," said Grade 12 student Emily Dewhurst.

Students complained too much class time was spent preparing for the standardized tests, which they said only suit a specific type of learning.

"I almost feel like there should be some more oral tests … a one-on-one discussion with the teacher," said student Ben Harrison.

"If you ask me that's where the true knowledge is shown."

He said some of his friends don't perform well on exams, mainly due to the anxiety they incur.

Testing failing students: U of O prof

Ben Harrison said classes should incoorporate more oral testing. (CBC)
University of Ottawa professor Joel Westheimer, who specialized in the sociology of education, said standardized testing is failing students.

"Real preparation for life doesn't divide up subjects into little bits of facts that have no connection to anything real in the world," Westheimer said.

"Real life has projects where you have to work with other people, or you read through information and find out what's important to pay attention to."

Westheimer said education systems should be preparing students to take part in their communities, something testing is "woefully inadequate" at doing. Instead of raising good citizens, the exams narrowly focus on subjects like math and science to rate intelligence.

"We can't test the things we care about, so we care about the things we test," he said, adding prized skills like time management and creativity are difficult to measure.

Education officials defend testing

Barry Bickerton, who works with the curriculum services section of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, said testing is a fair way to evaluate students.

He said testing enables students to give thorough feedback, and help students pinpoint their problem areas.

Still, many in the education system recognize the need to help students who learn differently.

Principal Bonnie Campbell said at Notre Dame High School aims to give students "opportunities that meet their needs."

"They're more apt to be engaged if they enjoy the activities," she said.

Ontario's education minister Leona Dombrowsky is set to appear on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Friday to discuss testing and other issues facing high school students.