Let’s Put the Lid on CAPs

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

The controversial new regime of comprehensive assessment in public schools is rolling ahead in Manitoba’s largest school division, and more is coming for all divisions. Will the program deliver the goods? Will it improve learning and provide parents with more useful information? Those are open questions.

An informative Free Press feature (“Making the Grade”, April 17) by education reporter Nick Martin described the Comprehensive Assessment Program (CAP) in action. Although Martin put a positive face on it, the details confirm the worst fears of teaching professionals. They will bear an extraordinary burden in implementing CAP, yet the imposition may be a waste of time. The information ultimately revealed by the agonizing process may tell parents a lot less about achievement than the old-fashioned report card.

First, a little history. Within a year of its 1999 election, the Doer government cancelled compulsory standardized tests. For Grade 3, a CAP-style program of intensive, teacher-directed assessment replaced the outside tests, while for Grades 6 and 9, school divisions could choose not to test at all. The only remnant left in place was at the Grade 12 level, where testing is still compulsory and conducted by the Department of Education.

In 2004, on the heels of a report by then Deputy Minister Benjamin Levin, the Department announced it was replacing the optional testing in Grades 6 and 9 with junior high CAPs. In Grade 7, students would be assessed for skills in mathematics and “social engagement” and in Grade 8 for reading and writing. While the policy deserves praise for restoring the element of compulsion, the increased complexity of curricula in middle schools merely intensifies the problems teachers are having with CAP.

Two new Frontier Centre backgrounders offer more details. One explores the nature and limitations of CAP, and the other connects student achievement levels across Canada with policy fundamentals like standards tests and school choice. The former analyzes the expanded Grade 3 assessments and criticizes them as subjective and needlessly complex.

Nick Martin’s report inadvertently confirms the second complaint. It describes teachers as “detectives.” “Now teachers ask how the student got to the correct answer. Did the child add five plus five plus five [to multiply three times five]? Did the child go one-two-three-four-five on his fingers three times? Did he know two times five are 10, then count 11-12-13-14-15 on his fingers? Did she intrinsically know the answer? Had he memorized it?”

Parents might be tempted to ask, “Who cares? As long as my child got the right answer, what difference does it make?” Although it may comport with progressive views of assessment, CAP drags parents and teachers into a time-consuming expedition into the territories of learning theory and teaching methods. Even worse, the Province requires these assessments by December, so teachers must spend valuable classroom time at the busy beginning of the school year to conduct them. Two-thirds of teachers say that takes at least two hours per child, time that cannot be spent in teaching. Teachers unions are up in arms and deep in litigation over the problem.

This exercise in perfection might be worth the effort if it provided accurate, detailed information about each child, but that’s not likely to happen. The first of three elements in primary reading assessment, for instance, is described as “Reflection: the ability to think about one’s own learning as a reader.” The Department gave teachers a booklet of assessment tools, but whether they use them or not is optional. Grading that element is almost completely subjective. On a provincial level, with no means to ensure a reasonable level of objectivity, the data is virtually useless for planning curricula and encouraging best practices.

Extrapolate those convolutions into middle school, where Levin asks teachers to evaluate psychological states like “school engagement” as well as academic ones, and suggests more than one teacher participate. How much time will be left to teach, and will the detailed assessments provide objective information? Not much, and no, squared. That’s why two-thirds of American states have opted for standardized exit tests. They’re less expensive and more reliable.

The other backgrounder benchmarks student achievement in Canadian provinces against assessment philosophies and the degree of school choice. The results speak for themselves. Measured by objective assessment tools – the Programme for International Student Assessment, the School Achievement Indicators Program, and the Third International Mathematics and Science Study – Alberta’s students, with the worst student-teacher ratios in the nation, are heads and shoulders above the rest.

Two policies distinguish that province from all the rest. Alberta’s children take more of the old-fashioned standardized tests, administered objectively by outsiders, than those in any other province. In addition, parents enjoy more school choice than anywhere else, a fact that makes schools more accountable because they compete for public support. Both factors clarify and hone the academic purpose, and make the system responsive to productive goals.

Pedagogues can and do knock external, objective standardized tests all they want, but it’s already clear that CAPs are not a superior alternative. They make teachers do a lot more to produce unreliable assessments. We should rethink this massive social experiment before it bogs us down any further.