Reinstate the Standards Tests in Grades 6, 9

Education, Rodney Clifton

The buzz in the education community is that Peter Bjornson, Minister of Education, Citizenship and Youth, has quietly abolished the standards tests in Grades 6 and 9. Unfortunately, the Minister did not make a public announcement, which probably means that he knew many parents, taxpayers, and some teachers support the use of standards tests.

Perhaps the Minister has been listening to the critics of standards tests rather than to the experts in his own department. Some critics charge that the emphasis on standards tests has lead to an epidemic of “teaching to the test,” others charge that these tests “kill the creativity” in teaching, and some argue that the tests “harm students.” All of these criticisms are overblown.

First, the tests are derived from the objectives of the curriculum, which means that teaching to the test is, in fact, teaching to the objectives. Second, the tests are basic competency tests, which means that they cover the core objectives. As a result, there is considerable opportunity for teachers and students to creatively move beyond the basic objectives.

Good classroom assessment, of course, begins with a teacher’s own observations and measurement of what students have learned. On average, teachers spend between 20 and 30 percent of their time assessing the work of students. Unfortunately, many teachers never take courses in the specialized field of test construction, and many never study ways of improving the reliability and validity of their tests. Shamefully, such courses are optional in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba, something the Minister should rectify before the fall term begins.

Consequently, many teacher-constructed tests have relatively low reliability and validity while standards tests have much higher reliability and validity. More importantly, standards tests are generally fairer to students — particularly to disadvantaged, lower social class, and aboriginal students — because they are created by committees of teachers and subject-area specialists, more fully cover the curriculum, and more accurately measure the varying performances of all students.

The Minister must know that, by themselves, standards tests cannot harm students, teachers, or principals, contrary to what many critics, such as the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, argue. It is the way in which the results of the tests are used that can be potentially harmful. Critics of standardized tests often overlook this important distinction, preferring to blame the tests rather than the people who interpret the results of the tests. People who interpret the results of tests need to understand what tests can and cannot tell them.

All scientific achievements, both physical and social, have been dependent on the standardization of measurements. As such, few people argue that standardized accounting procedures should be discontinued, that the police should be forbidden from using breathalyzers and laser-guns, or that medical doctors should not use blood and urine tests, all of which are standardized instruments with standardized procedures. Of course, if these professionals did not use the appropriate standardized tests they could be charged with malpractice. Unfortunately, no teacher in Canada has been successfully charged with mal-teaching.

Thus, properly used, well-designed and graded standards tests can give teachers, principals, and parents important feedback to determine whether or not students have attained the desired learning objectives. Properly interpreted, the results of good tests can inform teachers, students, parents, and other citizens about the effectiveness of instructional programs. So, Mr. Bjornson, please serve the interests of students, parents, teachers, principals and taxpayers by reinstating the standards tests in grades 6 and 9.