Alberta Diploma Essay Topics

Inside Lecture Theatre Five at the University of Calgary’s ICT building one evening earlier this month, teacher Mike Beland swiftly launched into a review of classical liberalism.

He touched on philosopher/economist Adam Smith, the “invisible hand” of the market, tossed in an advertising reference to Axe body spray, and jotted down some notes on an old-fashioned overhead projector.

In the audience were more than 75 Grade 12 students who had paid $295 for the 27-hour course, conducted over seven evenings. The singular aim: To do well on the Social 30-1 high school diploma exam.

“We are developing arguments you can make for next Thursday,” Beland told the students, referencing Part A of the exam. “We are giving you ammunition for that position paper.

“You go into that exam with that ammunition, ready to go, and you will be successful.”

This is unadulterated teaching to the test. It’s exactly the method and the pitch the Renert Centre, a Calgary-based tutoring and test preparation company, takes to students.

Here lies just the tip of a broader Calgary industry that has sprouted up in the past two decades around Alberta’s diploma exams.

The diploma exams have long been called “high stakes,” given they are worth 50 per cent of a student’s Grade 12 mark. But with more students competing for limited university spots and facing tougher entry requirements, it’s only accentuating the seriousness of the diplomas.

As exam results take on ever-greater implications, students and parents are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars, and more, for tutoring and review courses calculated to boost results.

Working teachers in Calgary freelance as tutors, some of them charging $60 an hour for one-on-one exam preparation help (teachers are permitted to tutor, just not for students they already instruct in school).

University and high school students offer the same service, at significantly discounted rates. One program organized by a handful of U of C students only asks for a small donation.

Online classified sites like Kijiji are littered with advertisements from tutors offering after-school help.

Companies like Renert fill lecture halls with teens looking for that edge. They recruit top teachers, like Beland (his day job is at William Aberhart High School), who know the exam format inside and out.

Some companies have fearless names like “Rock the Diplomas, Calgary.”

But the role of so-called “supplementary education” is raising all sorts of questions. Some worry it creates inequality among public school students, between those who can afford to pay for extra help and those who can’t.

Others argue education is already full of inequality and privatization. Furthermore, there’s a vast array of exam preparation courses, some being offered at bargain-basement rates.

But there’s been very little academic research into the field in Canada.

University of British Columbia associate professor Julian Dierkes, who has studied tutoring systems in Asia, said it intuitively makes sense the extra help is good for students.

But there’s little research into what methods work best, and what difference it actually makes, he said.

Governments in Canada, he said, have given little public policy thought to whether the rise in supplementary education is a good thing or a bad thing.

“I think there’s just sort of a passive acceptance of developments that may turn Canadian education into something very different 20 years from now, and no one will have noticed,” he said.

There are no figures that show how many Calgary Grade 12 students use a tutor for their diploma exams. But the number is well into the hundreds.

School boards themselves are tapping in, responding to student demand.

The Calgary Catholic School District launched diploma review courses about five years ago, and charge $80 for 12 hours. Last semester, there were 639 students from Calgary and surrounding areas who registered.

The Calgary Board of Education has about 250 students in its review programs, a mix of Grade 12s and adults returning to write the diplomas.

They offer “power weekends” that run from Friday evening through Sunday, along with after-school sessions on weekdays.

“It gives them some strategies, some know-how going in, and I think lowers anxiety and concern for students. They have lot riding on that,” said Mary Ellen Dewar, principal of Chinook Learning Services.

Tutoring and exam preparation can make a big difference. Springbank Community High School student Levi Jackson finished the fall semester of Math 30-1 with a 77 per cent class mark.

After taking a prep course through Renert, he scored 86 per cent on the diploma exam, a massive improvement given the exam is typically harder than the course work.

“I nailed the math,” he said.

Others see more modest improvement. David Reimer said his grades won’t be good enough to get into University of Calgary engineering. He’ll likely go to Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia instead.

But exam preparation courses add needed discipline to his studying.

“It’s really difficult to find motivation, especially when there’s so much distraction,” Reimer said. “The big one is you have someone who really knows his stuff right in front of you.”

Students who spoke to the Herald said their main motivation is university entrance.

But whether this all-out push for better diploma marks is ideal is another question. One math tutor, a CBE teacher, told the Herald she refuses to take diploma exam students anymore. Parents were calling eight weeks before the diplomas, but their Grade 12 child was missing concepts from Grade 9.

“I saw families that were panicked,” she said, adding: “It was just a lose-lose situation, because there was no way in that time frame that I could fill that kind of learning gap.”

Bill Hilton, a social studies teacher at William Aberhart High school, tutors a handful of students. Some students need repetition, or extra help they aren’t receiving in class, he said. And he said he finds it rewarding to help kids who are struggling.

But he suspects more parents will turn to tutors as public school budget cuts push up high school class sizes next year.

“There’s lots on the line,” Hilton says. “There’s scholarships, there’s limited space into (university) programs, and so marks become the all-important thing. It’s not really the way I think it should be, but it is the reality of the situation.”

Former teacher and current English tutor Margie Johnson said the teens coming to her are no longer those earning 65 per cent in class. They are students garnering mid- to high-90s in math and the sciences, but who struggle with essay writing.

Johnson acknowledges complicity in a system she says is creating an unfair tiered system. Some can afford her $60 an hour charge. Others cannot.

“I’m totally 100 per cent for public education,” Johnson said. “But I tutor and that’s a form of privatization ... most parents (can’t) afford to pay for a tutor. It’s wrong.”

Proponents of the diploma exams call it the great equalizer, as all students write the same test.

Moses Renert, who founded the Renert Centre in 1992, said the diploma review courses have a straightforward philosophy: They offer the structure to force the student to study for between 20 and 30 hours.

He said it’s only a minority of Grade 12 students who take diploma review courses, but there’s been solid demand for Renert courses over the past two decades.

He also scoffs at concerns over inequality. He said he doesn’t turn anyone away, and is willing to negotiate payment plans.

In any event, society isn’t equitable, he said. “The parent who can afford tutoring, the parent who can afford violin lessons, the parent who can afford hockey lessons will give their kids what the parent who cannot afford cannot,” he said.

Parents and students are paying for outside help, even though many high schools across the city offer daily tutoring times, where students access their teacher for extra help.

Perplexingly, teachers from a variety of high schools in Calgary tell the Herald the sessions are often underutilized.

Asked how many students show up, one CBE high school math teacher was blunt: “Not as many as should.”

The diploma exams loom not just over students, but teachers as well. One teacher acknowledges tailoring his Grade 12 English 30-1 course around what will be asked on the exam, even if that strips his lessons of variety.

Dale Wallace, an English teacher at Lord Beaverbrook High School in Acadia, said this is not due to pressure from the school system, rather it’s what students and parents are demanding.

He estimates just 20 per cent of the English 30-1 curriculum is actually tested on the diploma exams. It’s that slice he focuses on.

So classwork mirrors the examination: Reading comprehension tests, essay writing and “personal” writing.

What’s not being taught as much? Poetry and fiction writing, he said. There’s nothing about modern writing for the Internet, like blogs.

“It’s a bit of a dilemma, because I don’t think it’s very creative teaching,” Wallace said. “But on the other hand, this is what the kids are going to have to be doing.”

Grade 12 - Diploma Examination

For details on the Grade 12 Diploma Exam, please review the links in this folder.

Alberta Diploma Exam Website
This link contains all of the basic information for students and parents concerning Diploma Examinations for Grade 12 students.
Diploma Bulletin
Information on examination schedules, policies and procedures, forms and samples, as well as marks, results and appeals.
Sample Writing Assignments and Rubrics
Sample questions, writing assignments, and scoring criteria. Once you click on the link be sure to scroll down to the Information Bulletin section; here you will find the sample diplomas and marking rubrics for English Language Arts 30-1 and 30-2.
Standards for Students' Writing
This link will lead you to example responses taken from the Diploma Examinations. Along with the commentaries that accompany them, they should help you understand the standards for diploma examination writing in relation to the scoring criteria.
Student Guide
This guide has been prepared by members of Alberta Education's Learner Assessment. The purpose of the guides is to provide students with information that will increase the likelihood of their success in the exam.

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