Alberta teachers call for halt to digital diploma exams after multiple failures

The Alberta Teachers’ Association says the provincial government should stop using new software for Grade 12 diploma exams until problems with the platform are fixed.

Due to an error, digital English exam this week differed from paper version

Group of high school students in class using laptop
The Alberta government says there was a problem with English diploma exams thousands of students wrote online earlier this week. The glitch is the second problem affecting digitally administered diploma exams this school year. (Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock)

The Alberta Teachers' Association is calling for the provincial government to stop using new software for Grade 12 diploma exams until problems with the platform are fixed.

Students using a new digital assessment platform to write essays for the high-stakes standardized tests hit technical problems during the fall 2023 exam sittings and again during exams this week, according to the government, school boards and teachers.

Although the province hasn't said how many students were affected, some school boards say thousands of their students wrote digital language arts exams this week that included a significant error.

Jason Schilling, president of the ATA, called on the government to stop using the digital platform until they can fix technical problems and provide schools with the adequate equipment to run the tests.

Schilling said teachers reported the system was so unreliable last fall that some students switched completely to the pen and paper version in the middle of the exam.

"This is an unfair situation to put these students in," he said. "They have all the stress about going into these exams. They're high stakes. They have determination of their final marks. For some of them, it's a requirement to get into post-secondary."

Calgary parent Yulia Yosub also said Alberta Education should stop using the software until the problems are corrected.

Her daughter's English 30-1 diploma exam software crashed 45 minutes into the test on Oct. 31 before encountering other glitches repeatedly.

"If that program is not ready, then don't use it until it is 100 per cent on something that is a life-changing decision for kids," Yosub said in an interview.

Diploma exams are worth 30 per cent of Alberta students' final marks in Grade 12-level academic courses such as math, social studies, English and French language arts, and the sciences.

There are five sittings of each exam every year. To prevent cheating, all students across the province write at the same time.

Alberta Education has been trying to modernize provincial exams by moving some of them to online platforms.

The government first pilot tested the digital assessment platform during Grade 6 provincial achievement tests (PATs) last June. In October, some students writing English language arts diploma exams, including Yosub's daughter, used the software.

For the rest of this school year, school divisions have the option of using the software to offer the essay portions of social studies, English and French language arts diploma exams.

School boards will also be able to use it for Grade 6 and 9 PATs this spring, according to Alberta Education.

But something went wrong with Wednesday's English language arts exams.

According to Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides, one of the prompts for the essay questions on the digital versions was different from the question on the paper exams. Nicolaides said the digital versions had last fall's question instead of the planned January question.

In an email to parents Wednesday, the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) said that caused confusion for students who had both paper and digital copies of the exams in front of them.

Students were using the paper versions to plan their essays.

In an email Thursday, CBE spokesperson Amanda Upshaw said students using the software answered a different essay question than students writing in the paper booklet.

She said more than 5,000 CBE students wrote an English language arts diploma exam on Wednesday, and the "vast majority" used the digital platform.

A spokesperson for Calgary Catholic Schools said 2,100 students in that division wrote an English diploma exam Wednesday, and "the majority" of them used the digital version with the wrong question.

Edmonton Public Schools also offered the digital version of the English diploma exams, but a spokesperson said it wasn't known how many students were writing. Edmonton Catholic Schools did not use the software, a spokesperson said.

Students in the Northwest Territories, who also write Alberta diploma exams, used paper copies and were also unaffected, a territorial spokesperson said.

Nicolaides said Thursday he's confident his team will find the source of the errors.

"This regrettable inconsistency does not compromise the validity of the exam as all students received a valid diploma question," he said in a statement.

"Students, parents and teachers can be assured that the diploma exams will be assessed fairly and according to current practice standards."

More software problems during fall exams

Nicolaides' press secretary, Gabrielle Symbalisty, said some students writing digital English diplomas in October also experienced a "technical issue" when they used planning pages in the software.

Students who encountered glitches switched to paper exams, she said. For this month's exam sitting, the province removed the planning pages from the digital version to prevent the glitch, she said.

Calgary parent Yosub said in October, her daughter spent 45 minutes planning her English 30 essays using the software before it crashed, and all her work was lost.

"You can just imagine the amount of stress she went through," Yosub said.

The 17-year-old has high grades and is applying to competitive university programs for biomedical engineering, she said.

Although the software continued to crash approximately every 30 minutes, the teen finished the exam using the digital platform, her mother said. She was writing for almost six hours.

Schilling, the ATA president, said Wednesday's snafu that led to students answering different questions raises doubts about the validity of a supposedly standardized test that's designed to be identical across the province.

Some schools don't have the computers or internet connections they would need to reliably run the digital exams, he said.

Neither the government nor school boards had answers this week about how the discrepancies on Wednesday's English exams would be accounted for during marking.

In 2015, the province had to offer exam score exemptions to students whose computers crashed while they were using a previous version of the diploma exam software. The failure also affected English language arts exams.

University of Alberta education policy Prof. Darryl Hunter says technical hurdles are an unfortunate, but inevitable part of transitioning to digital exams. He said that shouldn't deter the government from modernizing how it administers tests.

"If they stay back in 1850 and think schools are all about manipulating pieces of paper, that doesn't do a service to what is happening in schools," Hunter said.

Hunter, who has worked for the Ontario, Saskatchewan and B.C. governments in student assessment, said it's important that the provincial government stays flexible and adapts students' marks when problems to occur.

It should offer students a timely opportunity to re-write any exams plagued by technical errors, he said.

Hunter said different essay prompts on an English exam wouldn't invalidate a standardized test, as long as the teachers marking those exams are grading the students' writing using the same criteria.

When Yosub complained about the October software crashes, an Alberta Education representative told her she could apply for an exemption — an adjustment that ultimately would have raised the teen's mark by one per cent.

The family declined. And Yosub is left with questions about the validity of the tests and the results. Diploma exams are designed to measure the performance of the province's education system as well as assessing individual students.

Her message to the education minister? "He cannot play with our children's future."


Janet French

Provincial affairs reporter

Janet French covers the Alberta Legislature for CBC Edmonton. She previously spent 15 years working at newspapers, including the Edmonton Journal and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. You can reach her at janet.french@cbc.ca.