Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Exam Debris When They Cry

I've wondered about posting this. Partly because it's a retread, partly because I'm not sure what purpose posting it serves, partly because I have three other posts in the queue that could come first. But what the heck. I can spin it a new way, and maybe there's some new insights a reader can offer.

This is the story of how I lose my mind every January, and again in June. It's a tale of what we call in Ontario, "Examination Days". The title for this post comes from the fact that, this time around, I'm seeing connections with the horror anime "Higurashi When They Cry". In that the story starts fairly tame, but quickly switches over to being a horrible psychological terror. That repeats. Over and over. Every semester.

For the record, I never got all the way through 'Higurashi', though I've read about it. So to be clear, no people were harmed during the survival of the exam period. Also, I'm going to be doing my utmost to present just the facts here, without personal opinion. So that people can draw their own conclusions. Much like I did last time I screamed about this. In January 2013. As opposed to in January 2014. Over and over. Every semester.

I will also include Higurashi imagery. For entertainment purposes.


In Ontario, there is a minimum of 194 school days, between Sept 1 and June 30. This includes a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 6 Professional Activity days; also a maximum of 10 Examination days. Should a modified calendar be needed, it must be submitted to the Ministry of Education for approval.

This is all in the Ontario Education Act. I've found something legal at this link:
"3.1: With respect to every school year after the 1997-1998 school year, a board may designate up to ten instructional days as examination days. O. Reg. 91/98, s. 3 (5)."

I'm not sure how that document links to this calculation of instruction time as being 110 hours per credit. However, I did spot the March Break algorithm in there: "Five consecutive days commencing on the Monday next following the Friday preceding the 14th day of March." So now you know.

At any rate, the "194 days" has caused it's own share of interesting predicaments. For instance, in 2007-08, when the Liberal Government brought in "Family Day" in October, and had to amend the school year to be 193 school days. Also in 2009-10 when there were literally only 192 school days from Labour Day to Canada Day; most boards asked for a similar amendment, and instead ended up having to put PD days in place before Labour Day. (In Ontario, teachers otherwise start the same day as students - you come in early on your own time.) Here's a breakdown of upcoming school calendars.

Informative. But not what I'm here to talk about. 

It's all downhill from here, folks.

From the above quote, the "10 examination days" seems to be post-1998. I'm not entirely certain what the system was before that. (Despite being in high school myself in the 90s, I didn't pay much attention to scheduling. I did find something about "185 instructional days", but I'm not certain. If you know, please tell me!) I do know that it was in 1997 that the Ontario government introduced it's new curriculum shifts, as well as the standardized EQAO tests for math and English, so a lot was going on at that time.

If we look at year-round schooling (eight credits over ten months), ten days seems feasible. Instruction stops in mid-June, and there's a couple weeks for exams and marking of such. But these days - and even back then - many schools in Ontario adopted the semester system (four credits over five months, twice). There are some who question this decision. Regardless, this creates a need for TWO sets of exam days, once in January, once in June.

This is troubling, but it gets worse. Because lately, there seems to be this perverse need to have exams on every single one of those exam days. Which was always the case (given "teacher scheduled practical exams") but now it's as if there's some goal of making sure teachers have no time to mark. As if they must always be with students, otherwise they're breaking the law. Which brings us back to...

I do believe in spooks, I do, I do...


Period exams are not yet in all schools. But they have been at my site for a while. Here's the reader's digest version of my Jan 2013 post: At five days per exam period, there used to be 3 days for exams (two per day), then 2 days for whatever remained, including marking. However, to "help scheduling", it was decided to run exams by period - meaning 4 days for all exams (one per day), and 1 day for whatever remained. Again, see that January post for why this can result in 12 hour work days. But there's other, more recent consequences.

1) Supervision Shifts. In the old system, you (generally) had two 3 hour supervisions to monitor all students in the gym/cafeteria. Possibly an extra hour on phones or something. In the new system, you may have three 2.25 hour supervisions of students in your class. Or more - this past January, I had to do an hour of hall duty on top of that.

At first blush, the time commitment seems comparable, but every supervision block is a mindset disruption, whether that's 3 hours or 1 hour. There are now more blocks. Also, more teachers are needed to supervise, now that students aren't in a central location. Also, there's the following:

2) Closing of Loopholes. In the past, some teachers had given "in class exams" during the last week of school. This frees them up for actual marking (and creates less overall supervision). It also makes some sense for the college level courses, where evaluations may have been more task based anyway.

Then at least one parent complained, saying "my son/daughter says they have no exams during the exam period!" So the hammer came down. If you can have an exam during "exam days" (english, math, science...), you must - you cannot give it early. Okay then.

3) New Grading Requirements. Over the last few years, Ontario has been migrating away from marking on points, towards "rubrics" and grading "on provincial standards". I agree with the shift. But as I said in January of this year, this is NOT SIMPLE for me - and I've been at it for a while! It takes additional time and effort, and at the one time when it's most needed... is when there seems to be no time at all.

I may prefer the quick death...

4) Multiple Exams. If a course is being run with multiple sessions, there needs to be a different version of the exam for each of them. Also, in the case of boardwide exams (they exist in Ottawa-Carleton for Grade 10 Mathematics and Grade 12 English) the "conference marking" (to figure out the levels) can now only occur on Day 5, because those exam may still be being written on Day 4. Guess, what, if we're talking January, you are then literally teaching Semester 2 the next day.

5) Classroom Duties. So, what are teachers instructing in February? Good question, as there's no class prep time built in. Now, June is a little better - no semester startup - but I just so happen to be in a wing of the school that gets cleaned during exams. So instead of marking, I have to take time to clean out my classroom, so that all my stuff isn't sitting in the hall as they wax floors for summer school. I should probably mention that custodians go crazy around this time of year too.

6) The Calendar Year. That one slammed everybody this past June. With June 30th not being a school day, some Grade 12 exams were written on Tuesday the 24th - with graduation less than 75 hours later. In that time, all exams had to be marked, final results verified through promotion meetings, with failure calls made, and convocation names posted to the website.

This even crunched down on teachers who didn't have exams, because to deal with the sudden inevitable influx of final marks after exams, courses that did not have exams were asked to get all their final marks and report card comments in within 24 hours of the last day of the semester. Because surely no students would wait until the exam days to turn work in? And teachers can mark all summative projects at the same time as they teach?


Now, a time crunch at the end of a semester isn't necessarily unique to Ontario. I've even heard of a school in the US, where on their last day, final exams are finished at 9am and final marks are entered before 2pm, before they leave for the summer. But it wasn't always this way. I remember a time - not 5 years ago! - when the very last day of school was teachers getting together to talk about the year, then sign report cards for students to pick up. (Reports are now sent out July 7th.)

What happened??


None. Or none that I'm aware of, short of "powers that be" being flexible with the timelines. I know our union representative has been advocating for us continually for a couple years, to be met with the blunt response "this is the way it is". I haven't even mentioned how our board's end of semester summative evaluations confound the issue even more.

IT'S KETCHU... you know what, forget it.

Then again, perhaps there is one solution - to severely reduce the quality of exams. Don't test everything. Make them easier to mark, as fast as possible. But this really throws ME off, because I consider the exam to be the last chance for students to show me they've learned something.

If that gap in their knowledge is no longer TESTED on the exam... what? I have to resolve through remediation in advance? Somehow? But if they do that, then why write the exam?  I suppose if the intent of "5 examination days on a period schedule" was to negate the usefulness of exams, congratulations!  But it's having psychological effects too!

Because until I find a way out, I continue to circle the drain. Every January, every June, new pieces of me die. Over and over. Every semester. The only reason I made it through last January was because one teacher colleague did my hall duty, while another marked a set of exams for me. It's little things like that which keep me from wanting to kill myself. ... and I'm honestly not sure to what degree I'm exaggerating there. To those who were concerned about me this past June. There was a point when I think you had every right to be.

However, personal issues aside, I don't think the system is working the way it was intended. Do the facts speak for themselves, or am I completely wrong?

What do you think?

Over and over. Every semester.


  1. Concerned for you, but not sure how to support.

    Sometimes David Coffey and I think about purposeful mediocrity. The exam grading is not worth the psychic costs. Is there a way to grade more... holistically? Quick assigning of level without worrying about details? Benefit of the doubt to the student. What effect does the exam outcome have on the student? Is it school data or does it determine their grade? (Sounds like grades.) Could policies in non-exam courses be set so that you're actually finishing their grades before exams, with extension projects the last few days?

    1. Thanks. I think that sentiment echoes a number of people in my department. The trouble is, I'm all about the details - when a student gets something wrong, I want to know why, and then I agonize over a 3 versus a 3+ even though I KNOW STATISTICALLY it doesn't make a huge difference.

      Yeah, it does go to final grades... and all my courses are exam courses. I was referencing some of the ones that do final testing within the school year; math isn't allowed to do that. I also mentally can't finalize a grade until I've seen all the data, even if I know I can change it later. I have this need to DO it and be DONE with it, I HATE revisiting things after the fact - to the point where I'm willing to take twice as long doing it, if it means I can fully put it behind me. Which I recognize as the perfectionist streak in me. (Things were a lot easier when I was counting points.)

      The leaning towards "mediocrity" to preserve sanity has worked for me in some areas... but marks/grading remains a constant battle. It takes me a week to get through a set of 30 tests. So a full set of exams in 24 hours? Yeah, makes me want to kill myself. But it's an internal struggle. Guess I'll just keep at it.