IS EDUCATION Minister Ramona Jennex right in shifting Nova Scotia’s standardized high school math and literacy exams from Grade 12 to Grade 10?

In our Opinions section today, the minister goes head-to-head on the subject with Michael Zwaagstra, a Manitoba high school teacher and education researcher who is also a fellow of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

Responding to criticism from Liberal MLA Karen Casey, a former education minister, Ms. Jennex says the move to Grade 10 testing is based on demonstrated results from the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board.

For eight years, the board has done a Grade 10 math assessment to identify where students need help. Having and acting on this information appears to pay off. Chignecto has the highest percentage of students who pass the Grade 12 standardized math exam and the highest average marks in the province.

Mr. Zwaagstra has no quarrel with earlier testing. But it doesn’t make sense, he says, to drop Grade 12 evaluation. It shows us the final product and tells us if schools are actually turning out students who have mastered the curriculum. We must test in both Grade 10 and Grade 12, he argues.

Ms. Casey, the Liberal education critic, also finds it “deplorable” that students entering grades 10, 11 and 12 this fall will never write any standardized tests. That’s because of the lag between ending Grade 12 testing now and starting Grade 10 tests in 2013-14.

Who has the winning argument here? We have to go with Mr. Zwaagstra and Ms. Casey.

It’s great that Ms. Jennex is open to learn from local innovations and wants to recreate the success of Chignecto’s testing program throughout the province.

But she’s making the mistake of learning only half the lesson.

When the minister says Chignecto’s Grade 10 testing is a success, she can only know this because the Chignecto board also tests in Grade 12. The evidence of success that she herself cites comes from the results of Grade 12 tests.

Without Grade 12 testing, no one would know whether Chignecto students are doing better in math than students in other boards.

And if it didn’t test Grade 12 students, the Chignecto board would have no way of knowing which changes work, and which don’t, when it tries new methods to correct student difficulties that are identified in Grade 10 tests.

The notion of letting three cohorts of students graduate with neither Grade 10 nor Grade 12 testing is particularly ludicrous. It’s a matter of putting bureaucratic convenience ahead of what’s good for the students.

The full lesson of the Chignecto board’s experience is that we learn by testing twice.

Grade 10 tests identify where students need help and allow teachers, parents and students to take action over the next two years to achieve the performance required to graduate.

The Grade 12 tests measure the degree to which those actions were successful. This enables teachers and boards to make further changes to help students coming after. Grade 12 tests benefit students in successive generations.

But as Mr. Zwaagstra rightly points out, final exams are also useful for students who write them. They teach study, time-management, deadline, analytical and communications skills students will need in their further education and future jobs. They help prepare them for many exams that lie ahead.

Guidebooks produced for the Grade 12 exams also show teachers and students in every board what has to be taught and learned. They are a means of checking performance throughout the year, before exams are ever written.

Grade 10 and Grade 12 tests are equally necessary parts of an effective testing plan. The minister should put both in place because this is the combination that is getting results in Chignecto.