Testing Public Patience

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

If the dispute between the Winnipeg Teachers Association and the Winnipeg School Division #1 over student assessments weren’t so nasty, it would provide plenty of material for theatre of the absurd. Both parties have painted themselves into ludicrous corners and in the process are proving their mutual disinterest in the needs of students and parents.

This latest imbroglio is of their own making. Nobody, not the teachers, not the unions, not the hundreds of well-paid solons at the Division office, wanted the regime of standards tests that were imposed by the last Tory government. The NDP agreed, cancelled some of them and watered down the others. For the early and middle years, we were informed by WSD administrators with high-flown rhetoric, we would have superior, one-on-one teacher assessments. Now the teachers don’t want those, while the School Board is determined to impose them on the teachers and the students.

What was wrong with the well-designed standards tests? Many teachers and union members say that schooling is too “important” to be subject to industrial-style measurement. Testing pushes both teachers and students into competitive behaviours, and all correct-thinking people know that can’t be good. Teachers will just teach to the tests, which are unfair, anyway, because they don’t make accommodations for social and cultural differences. And standards tests cost too much. Obviously, the money could be better spent hiring more teachers so that student-teacher ratios decrease.

All of this blather has landed us with the “comprehensive assessment process” so bitterly opposed by the WTA. To comport with modern dogma, the test doesn’t measure just academic achievement, mundane items like reading, writing and arithmetic. The CAP includes social, emotional, and motor skills, and takes into consideration the socio-economic realities of inner-city children. Trouble is, it takes three weeks of full-time teaching hours to administer the CAP to the average class. (Don’t ask how many hours that really means, it’s not polite.)

So off they go to court. Just the labour courts so far, but the WTA has a big bankroll and a track record of using it quite litigiously. Do you remember their 1971 refusal to supervise students during lunch and recess? The WTA appealed that issue all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, and they won.

A win in this case would confirm Manitoba’s position at the bottom of the national testing heap. A new Frontier Centre backgrounder reports that only Prince Edward Island does less testing than Manitoba (Educational Accountability in Manitoba). All the other provinces regularly engage in standardized testing. When Manitoba implemented the standards exam, it cost a mere one percent of total public school spending, a bargain, given the value of the information provided to the students and their parents. Four years ago, Manitoba’s Department of Education slashed the Assessment Branch’s budget by more than half. Many of the local experts have since moved to other provinces, Alberta, B.C. and Ontario, where their expertise is valued.

That cut the cost of assessing public school performance from about $70 a student to about $25. The teachers’ Pyrrhic victory over standardized tests soon turned sour when they realized they would have to make up the difference. They were much better off when the task was handled quickly by standards tests, designed by both teachers and measurement experts, and at the expense of the Province. What the teachers’ union would really like is no tests at all. But polling has shown that more than 90% of the public wants them. Many parents would gladly pay that amount out of their own pockets to find out whether or not Dick and Jane are learning anything in school.

Soft, internal assessments not only shift costs and impose them on teachers, they produce unreliable results. “Standards tests are relatively objective tests that yield the same score for people who have the same performance,” says Rod Clifton, an education professor at the University of Manitoba. “Unstandardized tests . . . are more often than not scored differently by different people on different occasions. Consequently, unstandardized tests [like the CAP] are inherently unfair to some of the people who have been assessed.”

Appreciation for the value of objective testing is spreading throughout North America. “There is no question that testing, assessment, and evaluation programs contribute to individual growth and to the maximization of individual potential,” concludes a study from the Kelowna-based Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education. Provincial comparisons give the highest rankings to testing programs in Québec, Alberta and Ontario, which assist learning by serving “as benchmarks for data-driven improvement initiatives.”

The smart provinces are spending their energies on expanding performance measures, and gathering the value that flows from them, not on tedious, unproductive fights in courts. Manitoba’s children deserve the same consideration.