Don’t Axe Provincial Achievement Tests: Eliminating Alberta’s achievement tests to save money is a big mistake

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

When running a deficit, governments often use the need for expenditure reductions as an opportunity to cut programs they consider less important. Unsurprisingly, various organizations have offered their thoughts on what should be cut from Alberta Education’s budget.

 If the Calgary Board of Education has its way, axing provincial achievement tests for grades 3, 6, and 9 students will be one of Alberta Education’s first cost-cutting measures in next year’s budget. In a letter to Alberta Education Minister Dave Hancock, the CBE argues there is no need to test all students in these grades when smaller sample tests are (they claim) just as effective.
It should come as little surprise that the Calgary Public Teachers Association supports the CBE in its desire to scrap the tests. As with other teachers’ unions across Canada, the Alberta Teachers’ Association opposes the use of provincial achievement tests to measure the academic progress of students. However, their position on this issue has little to do with cost.
The total budget of the Learner Assessment Branch, responsible for administering the tests, is approximately $12 million. Even if the province eliminates that entire budget, it is still a drop in the bucket compared to the planned $300 million in education budget cuts next year.
So it’s disingenuous for the CBE and the teachers’ union to use budget cuts as the main reason for eliminating provincial achievement tests. The real opposition to these exams stems from a philosophical belief that schools should focus less on academic content and more on the so-called “process” of learning. Using the overused slogan, “We’re teaching students, not subjects,” advocates of this approach de-emphasize subject matter knowledge.
When schools couple this approach with misguided no-fail policies and watered down course curricula, it’s unsurprising that an increasing number of high school graduates are unprepared for university–or life. Supporters of the progressive philosophy of education strongly support the elimination of all standardized achievement tests because they know these tests stand in the way of their goals.
Provincial achievement tests play a critical role in ensuring schools focus on academic content. Since schools know that all students must write these tests, they help hold all educators accountable for their students’ academic progress.
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 help ensure the core academic content and skills are taught regardless of the schools students attend.
Critics argue provincial achievement 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 don’t, they haven’t followed 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 eye chart in eye exams. Patients would not tolerate such unprofessional behaviour.
In short, eliminating provincial achievement tests as a cost-cutting measure makes as much sense as removing diagnostic equipment from hospitals in order to save health care funds. Provincial achievement tests are the diagnostic tools our schools use to evaluate whether or not students are learning the academic basics. The public has a right to know how our students are doing. It would be foolish to take away one of the best mechanisms we have for holding schools accountable in the name of saving a few million dollars.
Alberta’s students regularly outperform students from other provinces on standardized achievement tests. Clearly, Alberta has done something right in the field of education. Before undertaking an action as drastic as eliminating provincial achievement tests, the education minister needs to carefully weigh the long-term implications of this sort of change.
Alberta has the strongest and most effective provincial achievement test regime in the country. Let’s hope the provincial government has the foresight to keep it in place.