Is it possible to walk and chew gum at the same time?

Apparently not, at least when it comes to education policy in Nova Scotia.

Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, Nova Scotia’s Education Department will change the grade levels at which standardized exams are written.

The most notable change is moving math and literacy exams out of Grade 12 and into Grade 10.

The government defended its decision by arguing that writing the exams earlier gives schools an opportunity to correct problems identified by the assessment. That part seems reasonable enough.

Getting reliable information about student achievement earlier in high school could help teachers better focus their instruction.

What doesn’t make sense is the notion that adding standardized exams in Grade 10 necessitates their removal in Grade 12. Assessment of student learning is not a zero-sum-game and there is no reason to assume students cannot write standardized exams twice in their high school career.

It’s like a car manufacturing plant adding an extra inspection earlier in the assembly line process but simultaneously removing any requirement to inspect the final product.

Without that final check at the end, no one knows whether the car was actually built properly.

Similarly, removing the Grade 12 standardized exams makes it impossible to determine whether schools have been successful in helping students master the basics.

In addition, during the transition period, no high school students will write any standardized exams at all.

Next year, neither Grade 10 nor Grade 12 students will write standardized exams which means no data will be collected on either of these student groups. It is disappointing that the government is willing to let several entire grades slip through the cracks.

Most other provinces require Grade 12 students to write standardized exams in some subjects. High-performing provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia require Grade 12 students to write standardized exams as does Newfoundland and Labrador.

Even Manitoba, the province that has systematically dismantled its standardized testing system over the last 13 years, has chosen to keep its Grade 12 exams.

Since many high school graduates go on to post-secondary education, it is important they be prepared for the reality that they will write many exams in college or university.

Writing a provincial final exam in their last year of school is an excellent way of preparing students for what lies ahead.

The current assessment philosophy in vogue across the country, including in Nova Scotia, is known as assessment for learning.

It emphasizes the distinction between formative assessment (preliminary feedback) and summative assessment (final tests/exams).

Because of this philosophy, teachers are encouraged to make assessment more about giving constructive feedback than simply measuring academic progress at the end.

When applied to standardized exams, it’s not difficult to see why the province wants students to write them at earlier grade levels so as to better use them to inform instructional practice.

What doesn’t logically follow is the idea that summative assessment becomes less important. You need both formative and summative assessment.

Thus, a balanced approach to the standardized exam issue would be to have students write standardized exams in both grades 10 and 12.

We don’t have to look far to see how this could look. In the Chignecto-Central regional school board, students currently write standardized tests in Grade 10 along with the provincially mandated Grade 12 exams.

Obviously this isn’t a problem, since their students have the highest academic average in the province.

Lest anyone claim standardized testing is an economic hardship, it should be noted that the entire budget of Evaluation Services is approximately $3 million while the provincial education budget is $1.1 billion.

This works out to less than 0.3 per cent of the total education budget. Thus, adding or subtracting one standardized exam has virtually no impact on the bottom line.

The Nova Scotia government should do the right thing and keep standardized exams in Grade 12 while still adding them at Grade 10.

More information about student achievement is always a good thing. In this case, we can have our cake and eat it too.

Michael Zwaagstra ([email protected]) is the AIMS Fellow in Common Sense Education and co-author of the book, What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.