If you are over age 70 and completed the five-year senior matriculation programme in an Ontario high school, the word “departmental” will likely evoke long-ago anxieties. Younger readers may simply be puzzled. I hasten to explain.
For many years, until 1967, the month of June was fraught with tension for final-year high school students hoping to be university-bound in the following September. The only road to that post-secondary experience led right through grade 13 and, lying in wait, were departmental exams. Students needed success in at least eight subjects for graduation.
Looking back, it still seems hard to believe that the only measure of achievement in each subject was based entirely on one final exam. Term work, class participation and presentations, quizzes and mid-term exams counted for nothing, except as preparation for the dreaded departmentals. Even more daunting, these one-chance-only exams were not marked by teachers who knew us. Instead, they were coded so as not to reveal our names or school and sent off to a central marking site in Toronto.
Who ended up grading our answers? As one of those former academic markers, Gordon Munn explains: In history for example, only those with “an average of 8 years seniority in teaching grade 13” were eligible to be selected by the Provincial Department of Education. If chosen from among the many applicants, the chosen educators would arrive in Toronto on the last day or so of June, once classes were done. (all quotes are from his article in the Bruce County Historical Society 1988 yearbook.)
Who set the exams? A “Chief Examiner, usually a Ontario university professor, was appointed for a three-year stint” to draft the proposed questions. For the history paper (exam) a marking committee of 11 teachers arrived ten days early to set up marking schemes, assigning a value for each question. Grading a subjective answer could be tricky. Practices and discussions were held among the markers to achieve uniformity of grading across the Province.
After much effort and discussion, the departmental exam was printed and sent off to every grade 13 history teacher in the Province where the bundle was understandably kept under lock and key until exam day.
My grade 13 year was actually “years” —1957, ‘’58 and ‘59 (another story some time.) While I can readily recall much about those years—favorite teachers, favorite girlfriends, athletic endeavours, I draw a blank when trying to remember much about my encounters with those dreaded departmentals. I must have repressed my trauma. However, I can visualize the frightened, exhausted faces of classmates whose next academic chapter depended entirely on their performance over the three following hours. And some poor souls had to write two three-hour exams in one terribly long day. But, I do have some random memories:
—gathering with every other final-year Downsview Collegiate student in desks spread across the spacious high school gym floor, several pens at the ready, and waiting in collective hushed silence for the exam to be distributed.
—opening my exam booklet but totally ignoring the questions. Instead, on the blank left pages of the booklet, I quickly scribbled key lists, significant dates and study notes, all legally brought into the room inside my head. I had a fear of a sudden mental block wherein I would instantly forget all that I had studied—like inadvertently hitting the delete button on a computer. An advantage of this clever move was I that I no longer felt any frantic need to keep piles of data stashed in my brain. A bonus was that, while the anonymous examiner would not negatively grade anything on the left pages, he or she would peruse my scribbles and retrieve any point even in rough form which could enhance the quality of my answer
—watching in horror as one, then two, and eventually a third student was helped out of the room, dizzy and nauseous. Only one returned.
Years later, I learned that a student could appeal a grade which they strongly believed to be too low. I also discovered that the entire Province-wide, average subject score could be bumped up if, in retrospect, Provincial supervisors deemed it excessively low.
In writing this reminiscence, I realized that departmental exams were forerunners to our currently controversial Provincial “standardized testing.” As in classrooms today, some teachers complained that too much emphasis and effort was placed on preparing students for those Province-wide departmentals at the expense of other learning activities. On the other hand, those teachers were spared the ordeal of being pressured by students or parents to inflate a grade. Evaluations were entirely out of their hands.
Ultimately, I personally twice benefitted greatly from departmentals. Having dropped all advanced maths and most of the language and science courses along my bumpy high school journey, I Initially had no hope of finding required eight subjects. Back in 1958, I can still hear Mr. Greason happily announce that geography was to be added to the list of eligible departmentals. That gave me English Lit., English Comp, French Lit. and Comp., Zoology, Botany, History and now Geography. I made it!
Secondly, I went on to begin university studies in the USA where Ontario grade 13 was considered equivalent to their freshman year. I gained a whole year’s credit and became an instant sophomore (which helped offset my seven years in high school.)
The Dreaded Departmentals were ended in 1967 and eventually, grade 13 itself was phased out.
On this Father’s Day, I am reminded of the ”tough love” approach from our dads who pushed and pulled many of us through those challenging high school years.