Bring Back Standardized Testing

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

In a recent controversy in Ontario, that province’s government was chided for hiding school ranking comparisons from the people whom most care for the province’s children: their parents.

Unfortunately, Ontario parents are not alone in being denied useful information about their children. The Manitoba government has long been instrumental in preventing useful information from being relayed to parents because as the province has been busy scrapping many standardized tests over the past ten years.

Some history: The NDP took power ten years ago and to gain the support of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, Gary Doer promised big changes in K-12 education. Unfortunately, many of these changes have been negative. Certainly, one of the worst decisions was the elimination of the standardized exams established by the previous Conservative government which, among other reforms, planned to have students in Grades 3, 6, 9, and 12 write standardized tests in the core subjects, particularly in English Language Arts and Mathematics.

By implementing these standardized tests as the previous government did, Manitoba followed the lead of most other provinces. Alberta, for example, also requires students to write standardized exams in Grades 3, 6, 9, and 12; that province also makes school results available to parents and citizens. Perhaps not surprisingly, Alberta students consistently outperform students from the rest of the country on virtually all the international assessments of reading, mathematics, and science.

During the late 1990s, the Gary Filmon government began to develop and refine a series of standardized tests. The budget for the exams was steadily increased and used to hire experts to help teachers design these tests and to evaluate their effectiveness. By 1999, Manitoba had one of the most comprehensive and effective standardized testing regimes in the country.

Unfortunately, all this came to a crashing halt when, in its first year in government after its 1999 election win, the Doer government slashed the Assessment Branch’s budget by 60 per cent and emasculated standardized tests. Specifically, the Grade 3 tests were eliminated entirely and replaced with a much more subjective series of checklists to be administered and marked by teachers. In turn, the Grades 6 and 9 tests were first made optional and then abolished entirely.

The government has implemented assessments for Grade 7 and 8 students in reading, writing, mathematics, and “student engagement.” But, these assessments are subjective checklists administered by the teachers, which have much lower reliabilities than the standardized tests used a decade earlier. Curiously, the provincial government’s own support document says that there is no recognized definition of “student engagement.” No matter how nebulous the concept is, the government still asks teachers to assess their students’ engagement.

Only the Grade 12 standardized tests are still in place, but these exams are not even marked under the supervision of the Department of Education. Prince Edward Island is the only other province with such a weak testing regime. In only ten years, Manitoba has moved from the top of the heap to the bottom in ensuring that students understand the curriculum.

The provincial government should admit its mistakes and support the re-introduction of standardized testing. It is sensible to balance teacher-created assessments, which often vary from teacher to teacher, with standardized assessments, which do not vary by class or by school. Teachers are able to account for local conditions while standardized tests will help ensure the core academic content and skills have been taught regardless of the schools that students attend.

Critics argue standardized tests force teachers to simply teach to the test. Realistically, properly-designed tests are closely correlated with the curriculum. As a consequence, teachers should teach to the test. If they are not, they are not following the provincially-mandated curriculum.

Standardized testing enhances accountability. As in other government departments, it is necessary to use properly designed measurements to assess whether students have learned what they are supposed to learn. An educational system bereft of standardized tests is similar to an optometrist who refuses to use a standardized chart in eye exams. Patients would not tolerate such unprofessional behaviour.

The elimination of standardized testing is one glaring example of how education policy has steadily eroded over the last decade. It’s time to bring well-constructed standardized tests back so students, parents and taxpayers know how well students are doing. These exams are a fundamental part of effective teaching and an accountable education system.

Michael Zwaagstra is a Research Associate with the Frontier Centre and a high school Social Studies teacher. Rodney Clifton is an Advisory Panel Member with the Frontier Centre and a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba.