The Current

The pandemic is forcing educators to rethink how they evaluate students. Here's why

As high schools across the country scrap exams because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some experts say now is the time to re-evaluate what those tests look like, to ensure they serve all students.

Schools across the country have cancelled final exams in the wake of COVID-19

Some schools in Canada have cancelled high school exams this year. While some people believe they are a useful assessment tool, not everyone agrees. (Vetta/Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

As high schools across the country scrap exams because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some experts say now is the time to re-evaluate what those tests look like to ensure they serve all students.

"With all the trouble the world is facing right now, I also see a silver lining, which is that everything that was impossible before the pandemic all of a sudden has become possible," Joel Westheimer, university research chair in democracy and education at the University of Ottawa, told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"And what I do see as being possible is rethinking the way we assess students and the way we help students."

Last week, school boards in the Greater Toronto Area cancelled final exams for the academic year, as did Ottawa's English public and Catholic school boards. Manitoba has cancelled the tests for Grade 12 students, while Alberta is allowing senior students to opt-out of fall exams if they choose.

The move has raised questions about whether exams are the best way to evaluate students or not. Westheimer, for one, argues they're not great at measuring critical thinking, whether students are able to be in healthy relationships, or whether they're happy with their work.

Some students are divided on the matter as well.

Luca DiPietro, a Grade 12 student at Blessed Trinity Catholic Secondary School in Grimsby, Ont., is in favour of exams. He says they help students learn how to manage their time, and deal with stress. (Submitted by Luca DiPietro)

Luca DiPietro, a Grade 12 student at Blessed Trinity Catholic Secondary School in Grimsby, Ont., sees exams as an important way for students to develop time management skills and tackle performance anxiety.

"In any career, students will face stress. They will face performance anxiety," he said.

"Exams help them to prepare for the future."

They're also important benchmarks universities use to choose applicants and test student achievement, he added.

But Bridget Salamon argues exams are "antithetical" to education because students often cram for them. School should be about ensuring students "comprehend" what they've been taught, said the high school senior at Walter Murray Collegiate in Saskatoon.

She also worries the tests disadvantage students who are neurodivergent or struggle with executive dysfunction, which impacts a person's learning abilities.

"Exams don't test your learning," Salamon said.

Bridget Salamon is a Grade 12 student at Walter Murray Collegiate in Saskatoon. She doesn't think exams are a fair assessment of student learning (Submitted by Bridget Salamon)

"They test your ability to take an exam, which should not be the goal of our education system."

Richelle Marynowski, an associate professor of education at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, sees some of the merits of exams — that students spend time preparing for them, and they get a chance to think about the content they've learned.

But she doesn't believe they necessarily disadvantage neurodivergent students.

"I imagine that some autistic students would perform really well at exams because they appreciate the structure," she said.

No 'one-size-fits-all solution,' says expert 

Joel Westheimer is the university research chair in democracy and education at the University of Ottawa. (University of Ottawa)

Westheimer said both DiPietro and Salamon are correct. That's because, at the end of the day, exams serve some students and not others.

"There are different kinds of students, and there's rarely a one-size-fits-all solution to any educational problems," he said.

Both Westheimer and Marynowski agree there are other ways to test student learning.

"If we think about exams in a different way, they can do so much more than what they have in the past," said Marynowski.

"I much prefer an open-book kind of exam where students have resources to look at, where I'm asking higher level questions, getting students to connect knowledge."

Portfolios could be another useful assessment tool, Westheimer suggested.

"Some schools have gone to a model where students choose their best work over the semester or over the month or over the year, and then exhibit them to teachers, to community members, sometimes to other students," he said. 

"That way, we're getting students to showcase their best work."

But, once again, "if an exam caters to one kind of a student, a portfolio caters to another kind of student," said Marynowski. She said it's important to find a balance.

Richelle Marynowski is an associate professor of education at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. (Glenda Martens)

And the pandemic could be an opportunity to do that.

"I think many of us, particularly in the post-secondary world … are taking a look at alternatives, better ways of assessing," she said.

"This has forced us to take a look at our practice and say, 'Wait a minute, this might not be the best thing that we're doing here.'"


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Ines Colabrese and Isabelle Gallant.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

now