Update: Technical issues plague English diploma exams across Alberta

Thousands of Alberta high school students had to use traditional pen and paper, rather than computers, to complete their English Language Arts diploma exam on Tuesday, after technical difficulties plagued diploma exams across the province.

In the wake of the glitches, Alberta Education has asked the Calgary Board of Education to revert to “traditional exam methods” for upcoming diploma exams, which account for 50 per cent of students’ final marks.

When diploma exam season kicked off on Tuesday at 9 a.m. with the English Language Arts diploma, students across the province had difficulties accessing Alberta Education’s secure online portal that connects students to their diploma exams.

Alberta Education spokeswoman Tamara Magnan said approximately one-third of students writing the English diploma were scheduled to do so using Quest A+, the province’s online system, an increase of 15 per cent from last year.

Quest A+ is a secure online system that allows students to write exams through a computer-based application.

Magnan said the increased load caused the server to crash and schools lost access to the Quest A+ system across the province.

“Staff are investigating the cause of the problem,” she said in a written statement.

As a result of the server crash, impacted schools were asked by the government to have students write their exams by hand or using computers and off-line word processing solutions.

The CBE is the province’s largest school board that uses Quest A+ and to ensure no further glitches during upcoming diploma exams, Magnan said the CBE has been asked not to use the online system until further notice.

CBE students will instead write upcoming diploma exams with pen and paper or offline word processing programs, Magnan said.

A spokeswoman for the Calgary Catholic School District said the technical glitch affected about 2,000 students on Tuesday who were required to write their English diploma exam with pen and paper.

“We’re working closely with Alberta Education to determine what if any implications there are on this particular exam moving forward and anything for the exams that are coming in the subsequent days,” said Tania Younker, director of communications for the Catholic board.

In a letter posted on the Calgary Board of Education’s website, the Superintendent, Learning Innovation said students wrote their diplomas using secure computers, where possible, or pen and paper in the wake of the technical difficulties.

“Further conversation is required to clarify the impact on students,” wrote Cathy Faber in the letter.

The superintendent also assured parents that the CBE and Alberta Education “are doing, and will do, everything possible to support students and schools.”

A CBE spokeswoman said approximately 4,600 CBE students were scheduled to write the English diploma exam on Tuesday. It’s unclear exactly how many were affected by the technical difficulties.

Steven McNeil, a student at Western Canada High School, said students at his school began writing their exam nearly an hour late because of the technical glitches.

“It was stressful at the beginning thinking we would then have less time to write the exam,” he said.

McNeil said students eventually used computers and Microsoft Word to write their exams, instead of the Alberta Education portal, and when complete, they printed off their essays to be sent away for marking.

Students were also given more time to write the exam, to make up for the late start, McNeil said.

“I heard other kids had to write it by hand, which would be very stressful,” he said.

Magnan said students who lost writing time during the exam were provided extra time to compensate and Alberta Education staff are working with school boards to manage the situation.

In 2013, the government offered high school students in flood-affected communities to opt out of diploma exams or write the tests later that summer.

Diploma exams account for 50 per cent of students’ final marks, the highest weighting granted to the tests by any province.

School boards and the Alberta Teachers Association have called on the province to lower the weight, but the province has given no indication it will change its long-standing policy.

AKlingbeil@calgaryherald.com

THowell@calgaryherald.com

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