Diploma Exams: Worth Their Weight In…….?

You asked for a car for your birthday but settled for a computer instead…..

Diploma exams are a hotly contested issue in Alberta among teachers, politicians, and the general public.  Currently they count for 50% of a Grade 12 student’s final mark.  This mark is then used when the student applies for University entrance anywhere in Canada, not just in our province.

So what’s the issue?  Well, a kid who didn’t sleep well enough, is sick, or is just plain nervous about the exam can do anywhere from 15% – 45% worse on their diploma then the perform in the rest of the course.  I’ve seen it happen.  That student who normally aces everything can’t sleep the night before the exam, skips breakfast, panics as soon as she opens the test booklet and VOILA!  Scores a 56% on the Math 30 diploma when she scored an 86% in the course.  The result….a 72% on her transcript.  A good mark?  It might not be good enough.

How do I know this happens?  Because it happened to me.  And I lost every early acceptance scholarship I had been awarded because of it.  I still went to my choice of university, but I lost my Rutherford for Grade 12, my Early Entrance Award Scholarship, and my Academic Award Scholarship.  Total damage? $5400, or in other words…..most of my tuition money.

Because of one exam…….

I retook the exam in July but by then the damage had been done.  I was working two jobs and didn’t have the time I wanted to dedicate to studying for a re-write.  My faith in my abilities was completely rattled and the second time around I didn’t score much better.  A 66% instead.

I wasn’t exactly Einstein but I did considered myself to be a decent student.  I scored in the 80s in all my other subjects, placed 3rd in my class overall, and was generally considered to be an “academic” student by faculty of my school.  I’m not alone in my story.  Countless numbers of kids have followed down the same path I went down many years ago when it comes to marks and exams.

So I was encouraged when I read an article from the University of Calgary publishing outlet called:  The Gauntlet.  It’s a student run news source so I’m not 100% of the accuracy but even if the IDEAS are correct….it’s enough to raise my hopes.

“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.

Wow, do I ever hope this is true.  Our kids are facing an uphill battle in competing for university entrance with students in other provinces that don’t find themselves facing a 50% diploma exam at the end of the year.  The article also reported that, “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.”

So what?  Well, one could interpret this to mean that we are producing strong academic students in Alberta that score high school marks that are more consistent with university level expectations.  It could also mean that due to unequal standards, a mark coming from an Alberta student could potentially be lower than it would if that student had come from another province.

So why were they (diploma exams) brought in at all?  Well, the article explains:

“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.”

This means that students within Alberta could be more easily compared with each other since they were all writing the same test on the same curriculum.  It was argued that teacher bias when issuing student final grades was kept in check with the addition of final exams. The flaws with that theory are numerous and that’s a whole other blog post right there….but at any rate, the biggest issue is:  What happens when our students compete with students from other provinces where the curriculum is different and final marks are calculated in different ways?  From the University of Calgary, the Associate Registrar admits, “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.”  And in there lies the belief that as long as the U of C is operating under the same admission policies as the rest of the country, then everything should be fine.  Right…?  Wrong.

Our education minister has already told us that they will not be getting rid of diploma exams BUT they are pushing for the weighting to be reduced.  Instead they are looking at a potential 80/20 split which would significantly reduce the impact of a diploma exam.

What would that have meant for me when I was in high school?  It means my final mark in Math 30 would have been 80% instead of 72%.  A difference of what some people would say is “only 8 marks”, but to me that would have been a difference of $5400 off my student loan.

Our Education Minister has also indicated he is going to push for some sort of nationwide standardization.  Unfortunately he means for other provinces to introduce diplomas instead of getting rid of ours.  I don’t know know how successful he will be with this move or even if it makes a difference, given that curriculum itself is not standard across the nation either.

I don’t teach a diploma course, I admit that.  But I’ve seen what those teachers go through and the students that are involved.  The 50% weighting hangs over all their heads like a dangling axe waiting to fall.  And some of us have been unlucky enough to be standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Are University Registrar’s going to change admission policies?  Well, there’s hope!

“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.”

Ok, so maybe it’s not the car…..maybe it’s just a computer.  But it’s a start.  Go use your computer to keep researching on cars.

At any rate, I’m just glad that this discussion is even on the table.  It shows once again that our new government is open to change and flexibility.  But I’ll tell you now Minister….most of us still want the car.


About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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23 Responses to Diploma Exams: Worth Their Weight In…….?

  1. Rick Aster says:

    Quote=“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.”

    So what, you ask? It just MIGHT mean that the other kids scores are inflated by about 13%, and that those students really DON’T know the subject as well as our Alberta kids do… with no Diploma exam to check their standards against, those kids are judged by arbitrary standards.

    I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that is better.

  2. OST says:

    I am a grade 12 student myself, but I do not feel the diploma exams should be completely rid of . The weighting should of course drop to a 35% or some weighting that makes the exam important to study for yet not important to screw up an entire semesters work worthless. As the guy above says too , Alberta students have an advantage when they enter university. An elimination of the diploma exam , grade inflation would increase.

    • Let me start by saying…..I’m so excited to have a student comment on my blog! I think most high school teachers would agree to a reduction in the weighting. 35% is a start, I think the prevailing hope is that it will be worth 20%.

  3. OST says:

    20% in my opinion is too little. Students would not care if it was worth 20 % and it would not be worth studying for at all. I just wrote a diploma exam today , and doing so if it was 20% I most likely would not study for it at all.

    • Ah, but if one is only motivated by the weighting of the exam, then for those who think it should be worth even more than 50%….you just supported their argument. My goal as a teacher is to make sure my students are motivated by the learning, not by the grade. What is the TRUE goal of school? Is it to learn? Or is it to get an A? Thank you for engaging in this conversation, I wish you were in my school!

  4. iampickles@hotmail.com says:

    The diploma exams put so much stress on students that I have seen marks below 25% on these exams which just decimates their average and it is a crying shame to see their marks tumble so low due to exam anxiety. Unfortunately as one who sees these exams, I do not believe that they are a test of a student’s knowledge but more on a student’s test taking abilities. I have also seen questions on the exam that are not included in the cirriculum or else the questions are well above the level in which the students are working. This is a very flawed system, and I know that it is hurting students rather than helping them. I am sceptical with regards to the statistics put forth, since I know many Ontario students who do not see any change in their marks when they go to university, and some even find they improve and I have known many to go to ivy league schools and be recognized for academic excellence. I am not just speaking of one or two students but 20 students. I would love to see the demographics on the pool of students. But Kudos to the U of S for seeing that students succeed rather than fail.

  5. iampickles@hotmail.com says:

    PS forgot to mention, if Alberta schools are doing so well, then why are students in the NWT doing so poorly if they use the same cirriculum?

  6. Luke says:

    I’ve been devastated by the diploma exams because of the pressure involved. Realizing that all the hard work and hours of homework amounted to one terrible day where lack of sleep and nerves took over. I’ve worked out Pure Math problems for hours and finally achieved a score of 80% in class and then be devastated by the diploma. It is discouraging and doesn’t give anyone any incentive to improve.

  7. Nathalie says:

    It has been a really long time since I took my grade 12 diploma exams. I graduated high school in 1991 and never had any difficulty in high school. I never really had to study much and I got honors marks consistently. I think that having diploma exams worth 50% of your high school mark isn’t that big a deal if you want to go to university. Back when I went to university, most of the courses only had 1 or maybe 2 mid-term exams and then the final exam which was weighted close to 50% of the final mark. I went into the sciences and that was just a reality that needed to be dealt with. I would agree that if the final exam is not weighted enough, it does not necessitate the preparation required to take it. In reference to the comment about wanting students to learn and not just worry about a grade…really they are one in the same. The student who is conscientious enough to worry about their grade is also the one that is inspired by knowledge and wants to learn. They want to know which questions did I miss on the exam and why so that it wont happen again.

  8. Callie says:

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  9. Maddy says:

    I just received my diploma marks and although I did well on my others, I bombed my Chemistry one and got a 65%…it brought my mark for that class down 8%. It’s really not fair how one bad day can badly hurt your chances at universities and scholarships. It’s a flawed system for sure.

  10. cali123 says:

    Diploma exams can go both ways. As it did such for me, and boosted my marks instead.
    As of this last exam from January 2013, some of my diploma marks that improved my overall mark:

    Math 30 Pure: Class grade= 75% Diploma: 95% Final: 85%
    Physics 30: Class grade= 88% Diploma: 98% Final: 93%
    English 30-1: Class grade= 80% Diploma: 85% Final: 83%

    During the period which I took Math 30, I had tragedy struck a family member which very much so affected my marks, and a 75% was not representative of my capabilities.

    My school also has a notorious Physics department, where I think the lab report standards are even more superficial than universities. An 85% or above in a physics lab write up is practically unheard of at my school (of over 2000 students). In my opinion, diploma exams are a much better representation of a student’s understanding of the curriculum. And can certainly help those students who struggle to obtain a mark that is representative of their abilities (For example, a student who has a grudge against a teacher might get marked harder on their assignments. This does happen, thankfully not to me.). I don’t think diploma exams ruin our marks as much as they reveal a deeper issue, which is our ability to cope with stress. Which is why I’m here, researching for a psychology essay.

    For as I see around my friends and classmates, if you are a consistent 80% student, it shouldn’t be hard for you to score an 80% on a diploma exam, even without rigorous studying.

    What’s your opinions on this?

    • First of all, congrats on your results! And I’m glad that for you the marks helped, rather then damaged, your academic career. Unfortunately I believe (although I don’t have concrete stats on this) that you are the exception, not the norm.

      Traditionally it is believed that if a student has undergone quality teaching and assessment then their mark should not differ from their class mark by more than 5%. Anything more than that has someone looking to the teacher of the course for explanations. And I 100% agree with you that really diploma exams in fact show a great deal about how those who write them cope with stress. I also think that what they truly say about the student ends there. I currently have a student who’s verbal comprehension is off the charts. He can recount amazing things in math that would leave most people baffled and wondering exactly how his mind works. He struggles with anything he ever has to write down though. This same student also reads like crazy and will listen to all my Social Studies lessons and be able to recount them with perfect clarity. He struggles with writing, however, and ultimately this will hurt him in the long run. The problem is that he’s not a “poor enough” write to get any help through an IPP, reader/scribe accommodations, or anything else that would likely help him out. So eventually he’s going to write an exam that will not in any way reflect his real abilities or knowledge.

      I totally get why diploma exams exist. I think it’s a bit of a myth that you can tell everything about what a student knows from one exam they’ve written in two hours on one particular day, when they’ve spent months learning the material. Any exam that could be that comprehensive would likely take days to write. So it leaves us in a paradox….what gets tested? And if the other stuff doesn’t get tested, why are students learning it? And if your answer is…because it’s good quality information, my response is….then why test any of it?

      Thank you for sharing your experience with me. It’s always great to see the other side of the coin. Diploma exams and testing and grading in general are long, on going, complicated discussions. If this is of interest to you then I highly recommend you check out an amazing blogger and friend of mine, Joe Bower, who has lots to say on this topic. He can be found on twitter and on his own blog http://www.joebower.org. Cheers and good luck in all your future pursuits! It seems to me that you have an excellent head on your shoulders and your future looks bright 🙂

  11. shax says:

    Diploma’s can make or break a student. My boyfriend in grade 12 same as me is in a different school with a different teacher. He struggles with reading and writing and teachers just passed him through cause they didnt know what to do with him. He dropped outta school cause he was so scared for these diplomas. When we started dating i got him back in and has been helping with his 2 classes he needs to graduate with.. his problem classes. English 30-2 and Social 30-2. English he has an amazing new teacher who his helping him greatly and is doing better than he ever has in english with a 65% social is another story. he has a teacher that does not care about him and he asks for help and the teacher says you are on your own. hes at 51% and dropping. I try my best to teach him… but im not a teacher. The diploma is ulitmately going to hurt him badly. with his poor family life and lack of family support. I am the only on his life helping. I have no idea what to do.

  12. CL says:

    I definitely the mark drop… I have always had my final average in the high 80s/low 90s and I have never had a final average under 84%, that is until the diplomas. I was in a French immersion school so I had to take an extra diploma. My class mark was 89%, got a 60-something on the exam and my mark dropped 10%- my only class that I didn’t recieve Honours in. Diplomas really are hard on students, especially when there are essays involved and that mark can vary depending on who the marker is.

  13. Tyra says:

    I am a distance learning student..In math 30-1 my mid terms are worth 20% there are two, my school final before diploma is 40% and then diploma is 50% my whole school semester is based around 4 exams…same with Chem 30 40% for the final before diploma and 50% for diploma…I went from an honour roll student with mid 80s in grade 10-11 and most of this semester to praying for a pass…JUST to get credits to get me into a trades college….but that doesn’t help…I am pursuing to be a vet after college because the credits I get in college apply to university. (More of a round about route) Every single college/ university student I know has had to go back the year after they graduate to upgrade courses…the only reason why they improve their grade is because most only take that course. But a student that takes all 30 level sciences, the top math, English and social….Don’t have that time! It is a total shame that as students…this one grade…determines our whole future. It is a shame that we have to look in the mirror and say…”man how am I gonna feel if I cant go to the college/university I have been excepted to.” There is competition and high expectations…then there is setting students up for failure. Society’s expectations of high school kids is ridiculous…We are expected to have a job, balance our course, get scholarships, stay active, apply to secondary education, be mature, have a social life, pursue our dream, stay positive oh and try to have fun. But we are shot down by one. single. exam. People wonder why there is so much depression and drama in high school. LOOK AT WHAT YOU WANT FROM US!
    Adults always say “its harder when you’re in the work force and you have responsibilities”
    Really? When you are in the work force…you have the same job…you think the same way..If you are a doctor…why would Native American history apply to you? So is it really harder when you are in the work force? What about our responsibilities as students? Who takes that into account? Our futures depend on our grades in high school…it is our base to rest of our lives. It seems like a pretty unstable base to me,…

  14. Lionel says:

    My marks have always gone up from Diploma exams. My Math mark went up 5 percent, my chemistry mark 5 percent, Physics 2 percent and Biology 7 percent. I love the current Diploma exam structure, and would not be in my choice university were it not for them.

  15. Kate says:

    I am currently a teacher of diploma exam courses and a parent of a student who just wrote these exams. As a teacher I think the diploma exams are some of the best exams I have seen. They are written by experienced teachers, and extensively field tested before the questions are used. It is true that a lot of students see their marks fall around 5 percent on the exams, but this is also true of students in my grade 10 and 11 courses where they write teacher made exams. It is always harder to write a comprehensive final exam then it is to write quizzes or unit exams that test a smaller amount of material.
    I think the advantage of equalizing students marks with a 50 percent final exam outweighs the cons of grades falling somewhat.

    As a parent I did see my son struggle under the pressure of writing these exams, but I also found the more he studied, the less pressure he felt. His first semester marks did fall considerably, but he seemed to learn a lesson and studied much harder this semester.
    I think reducing the weighting of this exam very much would be a mistake.

  16. Zadeh says:

    I understand why the Diploma Exams are weighted at 50%. It’s to ultimately standardize our learning and scores. The problem, however, lies in the unilateral nature of the exams. For most subjects, the Diploma Exams are just a one-parted exam. This means that 50% comes from just 3 hours. What I believe we should do is adapt an assessment similar to that of the IB program. What they do is that they have 2-3 part final exam paper as well as an internal assessment project along side a portfolio. This means that you have multiple chances to prove your intelligence in the course with variety. I am in IB and I honestly like this approach much better. It is unfortunate that Alberta doesn’t recognize IB, therefore I have to do the Diploma Exams either way.

  17. Anon says:

    I think diplomas can either make or break a student, and for me it did both. It just depends on the students strengths/weaknesses mainly (and how good their memory is! HAHA). Personally, I suck at math and science, it’s a miracle when I get over 75% on something in them, while if I get 75% in English or S.S I feel very disappointed because those classes are my “thing”.

    My English, Social Studies and Bio marks all increased after the diploma with little to NO preparation done beforehand (I thought I bombed my PRTT and actually expected my English average to drop), HOWEVER, my math (30-1) and chemistry marks dropped more than 10% (killing my gpa). I was drowning in anxiety over those two and couldn’t even bring myself to study for them, which of course resulted in my poor marks. I do admit it’s 50% my fault for not doing well, but if the diploma was weighted 30% instead of 50% a majority of the stress would have been lifted. Also, senior year was a huge mess for me. I had lots of financial/family problems and was mourning the loss of a loved one, so my anxiety was pretty bad (which prevented me from really doing well like I usually do). On top of that I was part of various clubs and had a job which took up a lot of my time.

    I don’t think diplomas should be reduced to 20%, I think they should be 30-35%. Your exams in senior year should be treated differently than final exams in grade 10 and 11, but not so different that you’re having anxiety attacks and your gpas suffer huge blows. I also think all the provinces should have VERY similar curriculums and grading, because it’s extremely unfair if albertan students face these blows and can’t get into their dream universities while students from other provinces just waltz in with little problem. 😦

    I graduated in June 2014, and ended up retaking Chem and Math at centre high. I actually just took the diplomas for them like a week ago. The Math diploma, like before, was absolutely terrible. I even studied this time, for more than a week in advance, and I feel like I wrecked my average for sure. I heard that it even took the math teachers 2.5 hours to finish it! That’s ridiculous! Giving an exam to students that is even difficult to teachers is seriously a joke. The Chem diploma was decent, I didn’t feel like crying halfway through like I did with the math haha -___-. I get my marks at the end of the month, hopefully I did okay!

  18. Bob says:

    I feel like everyone copes with stress differently, some people slide into the diplomas not feeling a thing while others are literally a walking breakdown. I think many feel that only the “strugglers” have a hard time, and the smart kids are totally fine, but that’s actually not true.

    I have a friend who’s considerably smart and doesn’t really deal with stress related to exams and she is a bit ignorant to those who do, “It’s just a diploma, you should know what you’re doing.” And it’s true but people are DIFFERENT. For someone who doesn’t have anxiety, of course it’s no biggie!

    My other friend, who had the highest grades in the school and was in full IB, would literally cry before big assignments/exams due to stress. I witnessed it multiple times.

    I think schools should really implement courses to help deal with diploma anxiety and provide many resources to help students. If that happened I don’t think they would be much of a problem.

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