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Stacie Oliver, a high school English teacher at A.B. Lucas Secondary School, in her classroom in London, Ont., on Sept. 1.Nicole Osborne/The Globe and Mail

For high-school teacher Stacie Oliver, the past two years have given her a new perspective on how to best assess students. For a long time, she’d wrestled with the usefulness of assigning marks, researching its merits and drawbacks. Then, when her school board in London, Ont., cancelled end-of-term final exams during the pandemic, she took the plunge, dramatically changing how she measured achievement.

At the beginning of the second semester last year, she approached her Grades 9 and 12 classes with the idea of “ungrading.” Although she’s required to submit final marks, there would be no grades on assignments, no tests and, as already prescribed by the school board, no final exam. Instead, she would give them regular feedback to help them revise their work. At the end of the semester, each student would submit their digital portfolio and meet with Ms. Oliver to propose a final grade based on how they think they met curriculum expectations.

They were hesitant and nervous at first, she says, but in the end, Ms. Oliver described it as “transformational.” In their written reflections that Ms. Oliver shared, students talked about feeling more comfortable making mistakes, especially because the pressure of marks was lifted. “I would never have tried these things before because I was always worried about my final grade,” one student wrote. “But here, I knew that it was okay to take chances. It was okay not to be perfect the first time.”

“For me,” says Ms. Oliver, “it’s way more enjoyable, because I’m literally having conversations with kids about learning, not about numbers.”

For the last two years, as waves of COVID-19 upended school life across the country, school boards were forced to change many of their evaluation practices – including finding alternatives to exams. Although some boards resumed those stress-inducing tests last year, many suggested teachers continue finding alternatives.

Now, as we enter what will likely be a more typical school year during which most teachers will be allowed to reinstate final exams, some school boards and educators are hoping that the lessons learned over the last two years will reshape how students are evaluated.

The Toronto District School Board – Canada’s largest school board – has asked its high-school teachers to consider using other culminating assessments rather than relying always on a final exam.

Andrew Gold, an associate director at the TDSB who is responsible for student well-being and innovation, sent an e-mail on the topic to high-school teachers at the end of the last school year. He wrote that educators “displayed creativity and innovation” in evaluating students in the two years that exams were largely cancelled across Ontario. Exams would return this year, he added, but the tool “is not meant to be the sole and/or predominant method of evaluation experienced by students.” Currently, in Ontario, final exams are worth about 30 per cent of a student’s grade, and are typically used as the summative assessment.

“Our message isn’t don’t use exams. Our message isn’t that exams are bad. Our message is we had the opportunity to use exams for many, many years, [and then] other tools the last two years. Let’s look at how all that benefited students,” Mr. Gold said in a recent interview. “Let’s not return to old habits because they were a practice for many years. Let’s keep the enriched practices that we’ve had … and keep improving upon them.”

This may seem like a shift in the public education system’s approach to evaluation, but some educators have already quietly changed their assessment practices – and the value of exams has been questioned for a number of years. Do students need to memorize material for a big test when Google is at their fingertips and the time could be spent critically analyzing the topic? Are big one-off tests the best way to help students apply what they learn? Researchers and educators say that students learn more deeply when they can explore a topic through a project as opposed to memorizing facts for a multiple-choice test.

“This is a time of taking account and reflecting on what we do in schools. It’s not surprising that we would be asking about assessments as well,” said Jason Ellis, an associate professor in the department of educational studies at the University of British Columbia.

It wouldn’t be the first time, Mr. Ellis adds. At one point, students had to pass an exam at the end of Grade 8 to move to high school, he said, and several jurisdictions had provincial exams that were used to determine university acceptance. Both were criticized for narrowing the curriculum and forcing teachers to focus solely on content rather than developing critical thinking skills.

Tests and exams, of course, do provide valuable feedback for the public education system, allowing educators and families to see if students have met curriculum expectations. They also serve a purpose in assessing learning gaps, Prof. Ellis said, and what additional resources are needed to help students, especially those who are struggling.

“How much should we test? I think that’s always been asked, but it has a particular urgency now, because of everything that kids have gone through over the past few years,” he said.

For these reasons, most school boards, like the TDSB, will look for balance. Mr. Gold said the TDSB data showed higher grades and greater credit accumulation among its secondary students in the last two years. Of course, it’ll take some time to know if that is the result of students having non-exam ways to show what they’ve learned or if teachers were being more generous in awarding marks because of the disruptions to schooling.

Christina Smith, an English and humanities teacher in Surrey, B.C., argued that her students have consistently scored higher on projects than they would on tests.

Ms. Smith hasn’t administered final exams for several years – even before COVID-19 hit. Instead, she focuses on final projects, essays and portfolios to evaluate her high-school students.

Similar to Ms. Oliver, Ms. Smith researched the merits of tests and exams, and learned that it was not the best way to assess what students understand. Many grow anxious about having to write an exam, causing them to perform poorly even if they know the material.

“If we teach them how to learn and we teach them how to study, then even if they’re not getting the rigour of sitting for a three-hour exam, they’ll have more confidence in themselves and in their learning,” Ms. Smith said.

Jen Hare is a local president for the Ontario high-school teachers’ union and she previously taught English at a high school in Barrie, Ont. She favours providing feedback to students, but worries that moving away from exams may be a “disservice” to students. “If our postsecondary institutions are still [administering exams], I think that it is our responsibility as high-school teachers to make sure that we’re giving them those skills,” she said.

And when it comes to how the exams look, Ms. Hare suggests also looking ahead. School boards need to work with local postsecondary institutions on what their demands would be of future students, she said. She recalls attending a professional development workshop about a decade ago at the local college where she met with first-year English instructors. They spoke about wanting more technical writing skills as opposed to the longer persuasive writing that Ms. Hare and her colleagues were teaching. It inspired her to realign her assessments to better prepare students.

While exams aren’t disappearing just yet, teachers like Ms. Oliver will continue to test out new ways to assess. In June, when she shared her work on “ungrading” on social media, the thread exploded with teachers sharing their experiences taking a similar approach, and others who were curious to learn more about it.

And when it came to final marks, Ms. Oliver says some students in her two classes proposed lower grades than what they would have otherwise received, she said. The discrepancy made her consider how students tie their marks to their self-worth and identity, a correlation that can be problematic for some.

She plans to continue the practice of “ungrading” this academic year. The reception she received to it from her two classes bolstered her belief that she was moving in the right direction.

To her, learning means giving her students space to make mistakes when integrating a new skill. “That’s part of the fun, learning to master it and get over the obstacles,” she said.

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