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Weighting of Alberta diploma exams reconsidered

Debate continues over comparing high school students from different provinces

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Alberta high school students face tough academic standards that make entering university or receiving scholarships more difficult for graduates than in other provinces. The mandatory Alberta diploma exams, which count for 50 per cent of a student's final grade, generally lower a student's average by 3.5 percentage points, according to Alberta Education. Top officials with the Alberta Teachers' Association are vying for a change in the weight of the examinations.

A recent move by the University of Saskatchewan to accept Alberta students based on either their teacher-awarded mark or a mark with the diplomas included, whichever increases the student's chance of acceptance, has sparked discussion about how the diploma examinations affect Alberta students trying to enter universities nationwide.

According to a U of S study of 12,000 university students over a three-year period, Albertan students' grades drop an average of 6.4 per cent when entering university from high school, compared to their counterparts from British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario who see grades drop an average of 19.6 per cent.

Associate coordinator of communications for the Alberta Teachers' Association Jonathan Teghtmeyer said he hopes more universities and colleges will follow the U of S's footsteps to reform their admission policy and consider the effect diploma marks have on the averages of Albertanstudents.

"We are supportive of the University of Saskatchewan's reconsideration of the emphasis on diploma examinations in their entrance requirements for students," said Teghtmeyer. "We are concerned about the high-stakes nature of the exams and the emphasis that is placed on them and the distraction that emphasis has on the real learning that we think should be occurring in Alberta's classrooms."

Last year, only 15 per cent of high school students in Alberta had a combined average of 80 per cent or higher after graduation, while almost 30 per cent of Ontario students received the same mark upon graduation, something Teghtmeyer said is adverse for students trying to enter universities and receive scholarships.

"We have long been calling on the government to change the weight of the diploma exam," he said.

Teghtmeyer said the Alberta Teachers' Association would like to see classroom-awarded marks weighted at 80 per cent and the diploma exams weighted at 20 per cent.

"We think that this would achieve a balance. If you want to know to what degree students have actually mastered the curriculum, you need to ask the teachers."

The standardized diploma exams were introduced in 1984 to certify the level of achievement for grade 12 courses and ensure a province-wide standard was upheld. The director of diploma examinations for Alberta Tim Coates said the exams are important to prevent inflation of students' grades based on their teacher and that he would caution universities about disregarding diploma exam marks because of huge discrepancies between teacher-awarded marks.

"The common factor for all [Alberta] students is that they have written a test that holds everyone to the same standard," said Coates. "There is more of an opportunity for comparability."

Coates said one of the chief factors for the introduction of the diploma examinations was that universities felt there was a lack of common standards across the province -- there was no way to compare an 80 per cent from one high school with an 80 per cent from another one. He said that although universities might be cautious about saying they give Alberta students special status, it is often acknowledged that a mark coming from Alberta might be lower than it would be in other provinces.

According to the Calgary Herald, in 2010 the University of British Columbia began to add two per cent to Alberta students' averages, and other universities often accept Alberta students even when their average is below a cut-off grade.

Alberta high school students habitually are one of the top-achievers in the world in international achievement exams, and Coates said the diploma exams help prepare students for post-secondary education.

"There are some international schools that have asked to use the Alberta curriculum because it's pretty highly regarded," he said.

Coates said that although the diploma exams can't possibly measure everything a teacher does, assessment should be about positive outcomes and be blind to factors like student behaviour and attitude.

"When a teacher is marking a group of students, one of the things that is difficult to do is remove the bias you get by developing a positive relationship with students and that impacts the scores," said Coates. "There is a question of how a standardization can be implemented on a national level."

Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said that diploma exams are here to stay in Alberta, but there will be discussions about the weight of the exams. He said he will push for nationwide standardization and push other provinces to introduce diploma exams.

Associate registrar at the University of Calgary Scott Robinson said that, compared with other competitive universities, the U of C is on par regarding admission standards.

"Looking at Alberta students who have to write the diploma exams compared to other places that don't, we have seen that there seems to be a bit of a discrepancy in grading across the country, but we don't do things differently than other institutions," said Robinson. "Every institution has variations but we do have the same standards."

The U of S is just one of a handful of universities that are changing admission standards for Albertan students to ensure a fair comparison. Carlton University and St. Francis Xavier have already begun disregarding Alberta diploma marks.

Although the U of S's move affects Albertan students, Ola Mohajer, the U of C's Students' Union vice-president academic, said that because around 85 per cent of students from the U of C are from Alberta, applicants to the university are on an equal playing field.

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