CONFIDENTIAL DRAFT MINISTRY OF EDUCATION GRADUATION REQUIREMENTS PROPOSALS
INTRODUCTION BCSTA fully supports a review of current graduation requirements. We commend the Ministry for undertaking the review and appreciate the opportunity for continuing input to this important work. In its discussion paper, the Ministry states that the proposed changes, along with other objectives, are designed to “better support student achievement, and improve the quality of public education.” School trustees believe that we can and should move beyond “better support,” to “improvement” as the goal. Further, since we have agreed that the common Key Work of the Ministry and school boards is to improve student achievement, then it follows that any changes to improve student achievement will, by definition, also improve the quality of public education. We note also that there is still work to be done in creating a widely acceptable definition of student achievement, and we support the establishment of the Task Force to address this important subject. Consequently, the critical questions in assessing the Ministry’s proposed graduation requirement changes become: Will the proposed changes likely improve student achievement, and How will we know if they do improve it?
Although the discussion paper refers to these questions indirectly, unfortunately there is no direct discussion of how we would know if the proposed changes either individually or collectively would result in improved student achievement. Improved graduation rates are a possible measure, and so is improved satisfaction, but neither is adequate on its own. If we are interested in improving student achievement by making the proposed changes, then the absence of their rationale, based on field and research experience, is a critical omission. The reader is left with the impression not of change based on sound educational analysis, but rather of a lottery approach to picking some solutions that respond to legitimate issues expressed in the consultation process without the benefit of analysis. We are confident that this is not the Minister’s intent.
To remedy this omission, we believe it is imperative that our senior educators, particularly superintendents, be requested to analyze the proposed changes in terms of the following questions: Are the proposed changes an educationally sound means of improving student achievement? What resources, that is, people, money and time, would be required to successfully implement the changes? Another general comment relates to the Ministry’s opening statements about the education system: “Generally, both the BC education system and the Graduation Program are performing well. The province compares favourably to other jurisdictions in terms of graduation rates and overall student achievement.” It would be useful for the Ministry to inform the public of how it knows this statement to be true. To that end, we encourage the Ministry to publish in lay language a succinct statement of evidence supporting this claim. School boards would most certainly assist the Ministry in broadly communicating this important information to our local communities. Bearing in mind these considerations, we offer the following comments on the recommendations following the format of the Ministry’s discussion document.
1. IMPROVING ASSESSMENT In its discussion paper, the Ministry states: “…there is no provincial standard of assessment for graduates. This means students can successfully complete high school in BC without demonstrating any particular level of competence in academic subjects such as science, math or social studies – or in key areas such as critical thinking and problem solving, informational and technological literacy, community involvement and responsibility, and employability skills.” Statements of this nature published in a Ministry document, which also claims our education system is performing well, confuse the general reader at best, and at worst, impair the credibility of the Ministry in proposing these major changes. In reality, the current requirements do acknowledge competency in the form of passing marks in credited courses using standard curriculum. This includes required subjects to a Grade 11 level, plus Language Arts to a Grade 12 level.
The Ministry needs to state directly why it is recommending new exams. Does the Ministry believe that we need more information? Does the Ministry believe that the additional exams will actually provide more information than what is already available from the final marks provided by classroom teachers, who can generally provide the most accurate assessment of the knowledge and abilities of individual students? That said, it appears that the Ministry’s primary methods to improve achievement of graduates are to set provincial standards of educational attainment in four areas and to establish new means for assessing whether students meet those standards. Educational standards provide a common basis for discussing achievement, because they set out common expectations for students, parents, teachers, and the public at large. If desired, they can help gauge the progress of individuals, point to needed interventions, and also facilitate comparisons of performance, across classrooms, districts, provinces and countries. As such, establishment of standards is a legitimate element of public education, the graduation program included. However, in an attempt to establish uniformity through standards, we run the risk of failing to acknowledge the valued differences among students. Admittedly, the appropriate balance between uniformity and individuality in educating students is exceedingly complex to define and achieve. Thus, it is most appropriate that the Ministry has attempted to acknowledge the need for a balance by providing a variety of methods for students to demonstrate learning in addition to standardized tests. As noted writer Elliot Eisner says in The Schools We Need: There are many important tasks and skills that students need to learn – i.e., conventions – that are necessary for doing more important work and that educational programs should help them learn. The more important work I speak of is the work that makes it possible for students to think imaginatively about problems that matter to them, tasks that give them the opportunity to affix their own personal signature to their work, occasions to explore ideas and questions that have no correct answers, and projects in which they can reason and express their own ideas. (p. 181) Whereas it is relatively straightforward to develop common standards and achievement tests in core learning areas, it is much more difficult to set standards and establish accompanying assessments in areas that Eisner calls the “more important work.” While it is vital for the Ministry to establish expectations that provide appropriate accountability within the system, it is critical that we do not compromise potential outcomes for students by embarking on change in either area before we have a solid educational foundation. To that end, we trust that the Minister will ask senior educators to be the leaders in developing standards and assessment elements envisaged in both areas. In this way, we improve the chance of embarking on changes that are educationally sound, offer reasonable expectation for improving student achievement, and are manageable in practice.
In addition to involving educators and others with this expertise, government must be prepared to provide other appropriate resources such as money and time if we are to serve students well in changing the graduation requirements. Finally, we all recognize that accomplishing change in education is a long difficult and multi-faceted process that must start somewhere. Changing graduation requirements is one point of entry. BCSTA also welcomes the opportunity to make submissions on related issues under discussion by the Task Forces on Student Achievement and Rural Education. It is our hope that through all these efforts we will begin a process of thoughtful and effective change in public education that is focused on improving student achievement.
Grade 10 in Graduation Program Generally, BCSTA supports the idea of including Grade 10 in the graduation program, since students already take courses out of sequence. We agree that it would be helpful to provide students with earlier opportunities to spread out their exams and to start planning their high school program. Our major concern, however, is that Grade 10 may be too early for many young teenagers to begin making choices that would determine the remainder of their high school education, an implication that is inherent in the package, given the number of requirements and resulting limited flexibility. We believe that sensitive and engaged counselling would be critical for all students, and, in particular, for First Nations students who have serious problems succeeding in the current system. A. Core Examinations At the outset, it is hard to argue against the concept of testing basic competencies in Language, Science, Social Studies, and Language Arts. However, our experience with the current Foundation Skills Assessment is that tools of this nature can take a very narrow approach to assessment, and we hope that the same problems would not be repeated in a new graduation program. For instance, most people have heard criticisms that teachers and students tend to work to the test in a test-driven system. In such a system the material and the student’s skill in taking tests are too often the measure of achievement. There is a difference between demonstrating competency and taking a test successfully. During the consultation period, concerns were expressed about the need for more balanced assessment in the current examinable subjects, with less weighting of the exams. This might suggest some contradiction with the notion that more exams provide a stronger picture of student competence. Furthermore, as discussed above, standardized tests often exclude the richness of learning that we want to see in “educated citizens,” and they don’t take into account student
learning styles, personal development and non-school factors. At a later point in the response, we will discuss the addition of a portfolio requirement, which we understand is intended to help broaden the assessment base and respond to these particular issues. School trustees also raise questions about another issue associated with core exams. Since all students would be required to take the same tests, we need to acknowledge the serious risk of ultimately reducing expectations in order to satisfy a common denominator. This outcome would not serve any students well. For instance, this situation would put into question BC certification for students who wish to pursue postsecondary education in BC or elsewhere. Another concern we have is that the School Leaving Certificate would be eliminated and would be replaced by Grade 10, 11, and 12 transcripts. It is not clear how this change would benefit students with special needs. The following questions arise from these issues: 1. Would the competency exams include a school-based component similar to current provincial examinations? If so, would the 60/40 ratio continue to be used? If not, what would be the proportion? 2. What would be the process for allowing students to improve their marks? 3. What would be the impact on a student’s graduation timeline if she were required to repeat a core requirement? 4. Would the new competency exams replace the current Foundation Skills Assessment? 5. Would the Ministry provide school districts with funding for students who do not complete their graduation program on time because of the need to improve their marks in core courses?
B. Provincial Grade 12 Exams in Non-Core subjects BCSTA does not question the view that students and parents believe a course is more valuable if it is examinable. We accept this view as one possible reason for reducing the number of “academic” exams in non-core areas. However, school trustees oppose allowing students to take courses without taking the exams, and allowing them to take the exams up to a year after course completion. We believe that if students take examinable courses, they should all be required to take the exam at the end of the course. To do otherwise would create inequities among students depending on whether they “audit” the course, take the exam at the end of the course, or take the exam later.
In addition to this concern, the proposal raises logistical and administrative questions, such as: 1. Would the course portion of the final grade be shown on the transcript immediately? How would it be shown? What weighting toward completion would be given? 2. Would districts be responsible for subsequent tutorials for students who do not take the exam at the end of the course? 3. Would districts be held accountable by the Ministry both for the achievement of their own students and for out-of-district students who took the course elsewhere? 4. Would districts receive funding for the additional administrative work resulting from implementation?
C. Required Portfolio BCSTA supports the portfolio concept as a way of broadening assessment. We also appreciate the Minister’s plan to begin implementation with a pilot project, because we identify a number of practical problems that need to be addressed before it is required for every student. First, we are happy to see that students would receive guidance in preparing portfolios through a new Grade 10 course that would replace Career and Personal Planning (CAPP) 11 and 12. In addition, teacher mentors would support them throughout their high school program. While we recognize that non-educators may have some role in reviewing portfolios, school trustees believe that educators should make the final determinations regarding eligibility for graduation. Questions that we identify at the outset are: 1. How would non-educators be involved in reviewing portfolios, recognizing that at least a portion of most portfolios would not be school-oriented? Would the Ministry fund the cost of training non-educators? 2. What is the process envisaged for assigning subject teachers to review portfolios, and how would this fit into current workloads? 3. What allowance would be made for gender, developmental and other differences among students, recognizing that a number of factors play important roles in verbal and project presentation skills?
4. Would school districts receive funding for the additional work of subject teachers and administrators resulting from implementation? At this time, we also wish to register our concern about a proposal to change the criteria for scholarship exams. In the Appendix to the Cabinet decision document, the Ministry proposes to include excellence in Grade 12 exams, four comprehensive exam areas, and portfolio assessment. By making excellence in all three mandatory, we would lose a valuable opportunity to recognize student talent and achievement each of the areas separately.
2. EXPANDING CHOICE AND FLEXIBILITY In general, it appears that the new graduation proposals expand student choice, but provide limited additional flexibility. For example, students would have only one more elective under the proposed system, although the potential number of new courses made available to them may be greater. While electronic delivery options may expand choices for some, the blocks of classroom offerings are limited, and in many cases are dropping due to enrollment declines.
A. Expanded Grade 11 Math and New Civics 11 Course In principle, school trustees support expanding access to the number of Grade 11 mathematics options, in light of widespread concerns about the current mathematics curriculum. Indeed, the 2001 and 2002 BCSTA AGMs adopted the following resolutions: Request the Minister of Education to review recent changes to the K-12 mathematics curriculum, and fulfill its responsibility by providing appropriate opportunities for all students, not just those who seek to attend postsecondary institutions. (AGM 2001 #4) Request the Minister of Education to review, and revise as necessary, the Mathematics Applications stream so that students who wish to attend university, but do not plan to enroll in mathematics or science, are not penalized at admission. (AGM 2002 #4) We wish to be clear that, while this change makes sense, the Ministry must be mindful of school district capacities to offer new courses, especially those with very small rural schools and few students. Although it expands access to options in Mathematics, this requirement may well reduce the options for students in other areas.
The following question, however, is relevant to school boards and schools of all sizes: What funding provision would the Ministry make for school boards required to offer new courses – for example, more teachers, busing between schools, better distance education capacity, more classrooms? Regarding a new civics course, BCSTA suggests that the solution is not to add another course, but to review the current curriculum for Social Studies 11, so that it can be made more interesting and relevant to students. In addition, we are very concerned about any proposal that would affect possible enrollment in First Nations Education 12, since we believe that all students should have the opportunity to learn about the history and culture of aboriginal people. This course was introduced in 1995 and is now offered in over half of BC school districts.
B. More Locally Developed Courses BCSTA fully supports this proposal, because we believe that local school boards are in the best position to develop offerings that are most relevant to their communities. School trustees also wish to acknowledge that we recognize that the Ministry has a legitimate and important role in ensuring that the quality of locally developed courses is of an acceptable standard for the province. The same role applies to establishing portfolio standards. (See Page 3 for comments on standard setting.)
C. Alternative Ways of Receiving Credit This proposal is clearly designed to provide students with more choice for study beyond the walls of their own school and the confines of the school district. Therefore, BCSTA has no argument with the proposal in principle. However, in practice, there are a number of implementation questions to consider: 1. How would the Ministry ensure that the new CAPP 10 course is designed and taught in a way that would adequately inform individual students about their options, in light of the other purposes intended for the course and the nearly universal dissatisfaction with the current program? 2. How would school boards and government ensure that graduation requirements satisfied under alternative methods meet a consistent quality standard worthy of a BC Dogwood Certificate?
3. How would non-educators be involved in verifying alternative avenues for learning? What costs would be incurred, and how would they be covered? 4. How would the new requirements fit into the current workloads of CAPP and subject teachers, in light of added responsibilities for guidance, monitoring and evaluating portfolios, etc.? 5. Would school districts be responsible for finding the new money needed to cover the additional work of subject teachers and administrators resulting from implementation?
D. Postsecondary Credit BCSTA fully supports the recommendation that students receive graduation credits for postsecondary education. However, we urge government to focus more attention on the more significant problem of ensuring greater access to higher education to students who receive a BC Dogwood certificate. We are very concerned about the number of graduates who are terribly discouraged because they are denied admission to BC postsecondary institutions due to artificially high admission averages. It is our understanding that current artificially high admission averages are primarily based, not on the academic ability of the student, but rather on seating capacity reflected in government funding to postsecondary institutions.
3. BETTER PREPARING STUDENTS FOR THE FUTURE A. New Grade 10 CAPP Course Given widespread dissatisfaction with the current Grade 11 and 12 CAPP curricula, school trustees believe that some change is definitely needed in how we prepare students for their future education, employment, or both. Furthermore, we have no argument in principle with the notion that it would be helpful for students to start thinking about their futures in Grade 10. However, we hesitate to conclude that one new course, regardless of the design or teaching quality would necessarily be the effective and successful tool intended, even if we were able to solve those issues. We must also consider important developmental and sociological factors that affect young teenagers. Because of these issues, BCSTA supports a trial project of curriculum and teaching methods for this proposal that considers gender, economic level, aboriginal background, etc.
A related question is: Would the Ministry be prepared to provide new curriculum and professional development to support teachers responsible for CAPP 10?
B. Pathway Concentration Areas Among all the proposals, this initiative possibly constitutes the most significant change to current graduation requirements. At the outset, we want to state how much BCSTA appreciates the Minister’s assurances that these proposals would not constitute streaming, since we strongly oppose such a practice. In addition, school trustees agree with the Minister that we need to make high school education more meaningful to students and more relevant to their futures, and commend the Ministry for the thought and intention behind this proposal. In addition, we are very concerned that students would enroll in particular pathways, based on a limited personal or an adult’s view of their capacities and/or appropriate future academic, training, or employment directions. This is a particular concern for aboriginal communities. In short, we would hate to see any student’s future limited by narrow pathway choices that restrict their ability to access postsecondary education, training or employment because of decisions made as young teenagers. That said, it would be beneficial for the Ministry to receive input from postsecondary institutions on how the new requirements would affect student prospects for successful admission. We are also concerned that pathway requirements may have the unintended consequence of constituting a serious barrier to graduation for students who would not have enough credits to graduate if they changed pathways partway through the program. This situation could delay graduation, or even cause a student to give up on school. We recognize that graduating with one’s peers is an important motivator for students.
If the Ministry does not expect this particular problem to materialize because it anticipates common courses to form part of all eight pathways, then the concept of differentiated pathways is not in reality what it appears to be, and it would not offer the choice that we understand is intended. In addition to these serious issues, the Ministry may wish to consider the following questions: 1. What role, if any, would the Ministry play in overseeing the composition of the pathways in school districts and/or schools?
2. How does the Ministry envisage small districts and/or small schools providing meaningful opportunities in all eight pathways? 3. Has the Ministry considered potential teacher shortages in the pathway areas for schools and districts of all sizes? 4. Who would provide reimbursement for non-educators involved in supporting pathways? 5. What extra training would the Ministry support for counselling staff who serve in the critical role of advising students regarding pathway and other options? 6. Would the Ministry continue to provide districts with funding for students who do not fulfill graduation requirements at the end of Grade 12 because they switched pathways after two or more courses?
C. Physical Education BCSTA shares the Minister’s goal of encouraging students to improve their physical wellbeing as preparation for a healthy life. However, school trustees have doubts about the proposal to extend mandatory physical education to Grades 11 and 12 and to provide alternative options for earning required credit. We believe that a more productive approach would be to review and revise the whole K-12 physical education program. At a minimum, school trustees recommend examining the current Grade 10 curriculum and teaching methodologies with a view to improving rigour and increasing student satisfaction. BCSTA offers the following initial questions about the proposal to help shed light on the issues we have raised: 1. Would the Ministry provide school boards with adequate funding for offering the new courses, building the necessary facilities, and/or for offering extracurricular programs that would meet provincial standards for physical activity? 2. How would non-educators be involved in programs providing student activity outside schools? Who would pay for external evaluation? 3. Would the Ministry provide funding for the additional administrative work necessary to coordinate and record non-school activity?
CONCLUSION BCSTA commends the Minister for boldly undertaking the important task of reviewing graduation requirements to improve student achievement. We believe that the broad elements of the Ministry’s proposals hold promise for accomplishing this purpose in that they: Set new provincial graduation standards and related assessments; Revise the current examination program; Add new courses and requirements; and Introduce the concept of career pathways and graduation portfolios.
Taken together, these proposals represent a large-scale complex educational design task. While our submission has raised many specific questions for the Ministry to consider in reviewing the proposals further, we strongly recommend that you undertake two key actions at this juncture: 1. Appoint a group of senior educators, largely superintendents, in consultation with other interested partners, to lead the development of graduation program changes and give them responsibility to make recommendations on: Standard-setting and assessment methods and tools that provide an appropriate balance between uniformity and individual skills and talents; Ways of implementing portfolios that are educationally sound and feasible; New “options” that demonstrably increase both choice and flexibility for students; and New curricula in areas such as CAPP, physical education and social studies rather than improving current offerings.
2. Provide for reasonable resource support in terms of people, time and money for development and implementation. We trust that the Minister will adopt this recommendation in concert with model projects and phased implementation, as BCSTA recommended throughout the submission. We also trust that the Minister and her officials will see their way clear to proceeding in this important work with the continuing assistance of school boards, senior educators and our other partners in education in order to achieve intended results and minimize unintended negative consequence for students. Finally, BCSTA needs to make a concluding comment about funding. We were heartened by the Premier’s public statement that the costs of implementing the proposals will not be downloaded to school boards.
Our strong recommendation regarding funding is that the Ministry provide adequate resources over and above current funding to school boards so that they are not forced to redirect funding from other program areas in order to meet the new requirements. Such a situation could very likely result in unintended negative consequences for elementary and junior secondary programs, which, in turn, would compromise achievement in the senior secondary and graduation programs. BCSTA supports the Minister’s commendable initiative to review BC’s graduation requirements, and appreciates the boldness and pioneering quality of the proposals generated by the Ministry. We are jointly dedicated to improving achievement of all students in BC through demonstrably improved graduation requirements.