At the end of every high-school semester, it’s not unusual to find teens weighed down by those stress-inducing final exams. But one Ontario school board has taken a different approach.

Instead of dedicated exam days typically administered this month, the Simcoe County District School Board, north of Toronto, embedded the assessments into its regular school days back in December, well ahead of when the semester ends. Board officials believe that it’s a way to offer more meaningful feedback to students and give them time to improve.

“Feedback is the number one driver for student learning, right?” said Dean Maltby, the board’s superintendent of student achievement, in an interview.

“So, in order to take advantage of that, we needed to push the culminating tasks or final assessments … a bit earlier to give staff time to do that assessment, and then give students time to digest that and then come up with a plan for recovery and improvement.”

Mr. Maltby said this was the Simcoe board’s third time doing assessments in this way. The change is part of a wider movement in public education to examine how students are evaluated. Educators were forced to change their assessment practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. And many didn’t stop as schooling returned to normal.

In British Columbia, public-school students from kindergarten to Grade 9 are assessed with a proficiency scale instead of letter grades, to provide more descriptive feedback. And educators in many parts of the country are experimenting with “ungrading,” where assignments receive feedback instead of marks.

Increasingly, educators are shifting their thinking around assessments. Marks are still necessary to get into postsecondary institutions and to apply for scholarships. But researchers suggest that students learn more deeply when they work on a project as opposed to memorizing facts for a test. They encourage feedback so students can learn from where they went wrong and improve.

“The idea of diagnostic testing, as opposed to summative, is really essential to the teaching and learning process, because it’s the way that instructors can see whether it’s sinking in,” said Michael Hoechsmann, an education professor at Lakehead University.

Currently, in Ontario, final exams are worth about 30 per cent of a student’s grade, and are typically used as the summative assessment.

At the Simcoe school board, exams are written a month before the semester ends and happen during the regular school day, which means students are attending other classes. By contrast, in the old system, students would complete the semester and move on without understanding where they could improve, Mr. Maltby said.

He said that the public-education sector is slow to alter its ways on how to assess students, but already he’s seen university programs start to initiate changes: “We want to make sure that our exams, which we still have, are learning opportunities.”

But the change at Simcoe does not sit well with many in the community, such as Brian Feldman, a parent and recently retired high-school teacher at the board. He started a petition, which has garnered more than 1,800 signatures, to urge school officials to return to formal final exams during a dedicated period at the end of the semester.

“The system here in Simcoe County, which is different than every other school board in the province, isn’t working. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that,” said Mr. Feldman, whose daughter is in Grade 11.

He said that the course is not complete when an exam is administered, which also means that students are not as engaged for the last few weeks when material still has to be covered.

Further, exams are already stressful enough, and embedding them into a regular school day when students are balancing the workload of other courses ignores their mental health, he said.

“The board’s argument that students always need feedback, and opportunities for improvement, I completely agree with and that happens every day throughout the semester. But it’s also okay to have an assessment at the end, a summative assessment of their learning.”

His daughter, Edie, said in an interview that this is “stressful” because she’s trying to balance a workload in other classes while writing exams. She doesn’t feel the current process will prepare her for writing exams at university, where students spend dedicated days on final assessments.

Jen Hare, the local bargaining unit president for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said some of her members have already foregone the assessment because they feel it’s unfair to their students who have other classes during the day.

She proposed that her board consider a similar process as the Toronto District School Board, where students have formal assessment days at the end of the semester with one day to have a conversation with the teacher for feedback and how to improve going forward.

“Is this really in the best interest of our students? Is this really providing them the tools that they need?” Ms. Hare said. “It’s really stressful to get to university, or through a trade and writing a red seal examination, never having really sat through a lengthy examination.”

The Globe and Mail, January 29, 2024