On Campus

Why a Nova Scotia school strike won't hurt students

I always feared Nova Scotia English students were not expected to learn anything. Now I have proof.

Support staff for Nova Scotia schools may soon be walking out, and this has raised concerns about, among other things, high school students preparing to write their provincial exams. This led me to wonder what the students might be missing, and so I looked into the exams and what they entail. Since I am an English professor, I decided to look into the English exam.

If the English exams are any indication of what students are expected to learn, they don’t have much to worry about. The exams don’t expect them to have learned anything at all.

The English poetry sample questions provided on the NS Government’s web site give a poem, sample questions about the poem, and sample answers to guide the teachers’ grading. The sample poem in this case features a speaker recalling childhood days, eagerly waiting for a father to come home from work. Not a great poem, but no matter. What about the questions? Half of them are odd multiple choice questions. Odd because, it seems to me they ask for specific answers about broad questions. “How does the boy feel about his father?’ one asks. “Excited” or “Sentimental”? Clearly both, it seems to me. And besides, nothing in the poem says it’s a boy.  But that’s not the worst of it. Then come short answer questions.

The first short answer in the guide is wrong. The question asks how long it as been since the events described in the poem, with the correct answer being “about fifty years.” But what the poem actually says, it that it has been more than fifty years — it doesn’t say how much more. But that’s a quibble about a boring question. Were any of the questions good questions? Did any expect answers that required real thought? At first I thought I had found one that was:

Re-read lines 18-20 and explain the meaning of “nail-etched.”

For your information, here are the relevant lines from the poem, in which the speaker describes the father’s lunch bucket, a recurring image in the poem:

he loomed

before me and set down

the metal bucket, his name

nail-etched with pride

in the black enamel

Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere. This question actually asks the student to consider issues of meaning. They have to look at the poem symbolically, pay attention to detail. This is good.

Here is what I would expect a good high school short answer to look like:

The father’s name scratched into the lunch box suggests confidence in himself. The author says he takes “pride” in it, meaning that he values himself enough to identify his lunch box as his. He also sees himself as not just another worker. The fact that he used something as basic as a nail tells us that he takes simple and direct approach to what he does in life. The name is probably not neatly done (it would be difficult to scratch neatly into enamel) but it doesn’t matter to him or his child. They both value him for who he is.

This is not what I would write, mind you, or even what I would expect my university-level English students to write. I see this as something a reasonably smart high school student with a good understanding of what a poem is could do.

Here is — and I’m not even kidding — the entire suggested sample answer:

Scratched/engraved/drawn with a nail.

I swore when I read that. Out loud. It’s not even a sentence. And all that the students need to say about “nail-etched” is that it means “scratched with a nail?” That’s it? What else could “nail-etched” mean? “Massaged with a balloon?” All it really asks is that the students can figure out what “etched” means which, even if they didn’t know, is plain from context. All the question really asks is, “You want your name on a lunchbox. You have a nail. What do you do?” Should I even mention that this test counts for 30 per cent of a student’s grade?

God forbid a school strike should prevent students from being properly prepared for these exams. They might miss their chance to demonstrate how little they are expected to know.

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