Exams or assessment – the Canada experience

by Bethan Marshall

August 29, 2020

Dr. Bethan Marshall, Vice Chair of the New Visions for Education Group and Senior Lecturer in English Education at King’s College, London joins the debate on replacing GCSEs with teacher assessment looking at the Canadian model of teacher based course assessment and the exam that almost no-one fails.

Canada is divided into ten provinces and three territories. All jurisdictions have a system of teacher-based course assessment. In other words there is no final examination which is sent out for others to mark. It is all done in house. If we look at the example of Ontario, which has the greatest number of students, this gives the teachers carte blanche in deciding what the students study. There is a curriculum document for each subject determined by the Ontario government but it relies on fairly generic principles. In English, for instance there is a demand that they study the media, a Canadian author and a renaissance playwright but no specific author is mentioned. This gives the teachers a great deal of freedom as to what and how they study as there is no syllabus with named authors either. They can determine what they teach based on the class in front of them. It also allows, potentially, for more formative assessment as the content of the class is not dictated to from outside but can be personalised to the students they are teaching.

Moreover, there is no external inspection system which again gives the Canadian teachers a sense of autonomy and freedom to teach what they want. Different jurisdictions have different ways of monitoring what goes on in the classroom, for instance Saskatchewan has a system of internal review and Ontario has the Teacher Professional Appraisal System. Both these are more like the one that John Macbeath and the NUT proposed in 2005 which suggest a process of self evaluation within schools. In their book Empowered Educators in Canada, (Campbell et al, 2017)1 which looks specifically at Alberta and Ontario, they conclude that both have brought about changes and development in how schools operate through ‘professionally led change’. They also cite a practice of leading from the middle as opposed to top down changes which are regularly inspected, (such as OFSTED) and tested (GCSE and A-Levels) as has happened in England. In other words there is greater trust of the professionals, the way they teach, and therefore of their ability to assess students’ work

Most jurisdictions, however, do have some kind of literacy and numeracy test when the students are around fifteen, which is externally marked. In Ontario this is known as the Ontario Secondary Schools Literacy Test OSSLT and Ontario Secondary Schools Numeracy Test OSSNT. Neither of these tests is seen as the province of any one department. They are very much seen as cross curricular and there is little if any teaching to the test despite the fact that in order to graduate from high school you have to pass the literacy test. Students who do not pass the test at the first attempt can take it again the following year and if they still haven’t passed it they can take a class in their final year of school. The result is that almost everybody passes the test in the end. The vast majority of schools end up with a 100% pass rate.

The only caveat to the teacher based summative assessment system is that there is no standardisation of results. Other countries and jurisdictions have had rigorous systems in place to ensure that the grade of a student in school A is the same as that of school B and these have been extensively researched as well. Queensland, for example, until recently had a course-based summative assessment where they had annual reviews of the results so that they could ensure standardization across schools. AQA in this country had a very similar procedure to the one in Queensland where they had moderation within and outside the schools in the form of a review panel which checked on all the schools results. The lack of a means of standardizing school results has meant that the IB has become more popular in Canadian high schools but even this has a large component of course-based assessment.

The Australian experience is interesting in that they too introduced a literacy and numeracy test somewhat akin to our SATS and abandoned course based assessment. One researcher says that the unintended consequences “mirror many experienced in the US and UK, including teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum focus, increasing student and teacher anxiety, promoting direct teaching methods, a decrease in student motivation and the creation of classroom environments that are less, not more, inclusive”2

As Klenowski and Wyatt-Smith point out:

The traditional divide between objective and subjective judgement became established, the former routinely associated with standardised testing, and the latter, teacher judgement. Underpinning the divide was the ill-conceived notion that standardised testing led to more reliable judgement, especially where marking was regulated (e.g. by machine marking), and relied less on the human brain for decision-making. 3.

We have gone for standardised testing, the Canadians for teacher judgement.


1 Campbell, C.; Zeichner, K.; Lieberman, A and Osmond-Johnson, P (2017) Empowered Educators in Canada: How high performing systems shape teacher quality. San Francisco, Jossey- Bass

2 Thompson, G. (2013) NAPLAN, MySchool and Accountability: TeacherPerceptions of the Effects of Testing. The International Education Journal:Comparative Perspectives, 2013, 12(2), pp. 62–84 at Page 64

3 Klenowski and Wyatt-Smith (2012) The impact of high stakes testing: the Australian story Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 12 (1) 65-79 at Page 68