Testing Still Valuable

Media Appearances, Education, Frontier Centre

Kids who took Ontario’s provincewide tests in reading, writing and mathematics last year are learning that some schools cheated, providing students with questions beforehand, handing back answers to correct, providing resources like dictionaries.

Some schools inadvertently broke the rules, but some cheated, the chief assessment officer at Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office said Monday. Notre Dame in Windsor is one of 10 schools being investigated for irregularities.

Standardized tests are supposed to measure, in a fair and consistent way, what students have learned. But how do we know what these students have learned? The tests are supposed to measure the effectiveness of teaching strategies. We don’t know how effective the teaching in these classes was. The tests are supposed to tell the public, which pays for schools, how those schools are performing.
Now, how can we tell?
Many teachers don’t like standardized tests. Teachers’ unions want them eliminated. They say they assess their students every day through class work, homework, projects and quizzes. That’s true, and it’s important. But two different students in two different cities could receive the same mark, and those marks could mean two different things, says Michael Zwaagstra, a high school social studies teacher and co-author of a new book called What’s Wrong With Our Schools And How To Fix Them.
A standard, provincewide test is a key component in measuring performance in a standard, provincewide curriculum, he says.
"To me," he said in an interview, "taking away standardized testing would be like taking out the diagnostic equipment from hospitals. It’s an important part of the assessment."
Sensible and frank, Zwaagstra debunks all the arguments against testing:
– The tests cause too much pressure.
Tests are part of life, he says. If you want a driver’s licence, you have to pass a written test and a driving test. If you want a job as a cashier in a grocery store, you often have to pass a test on product codes. If you want to become a Canadian citizen, you have to pass a citizenship test.
– Teachers "teach to the test."
If the test is properly designed and reflects the curriculum, then teachers should teach to the test because then they’re teaching the curriculum, Zwaagstra says.
– The tests cost too much money that could be spent on other things, like smaller class sizes.
The tests cost about $32 million a year. That’s "miniscule" and "piddly" compared to the billions Ontario spends on education, Zwaagstra says. It’s a small price to pay for accountability.
– The tests take too much time.
Teachers could show fewer movies in class, he said.
– What about students with learning disabilities, students who speak other languages, those from low-income families or different cultures?
A small group of students with severe disabilities won’t function at the normal level, Zwaagstra said. But "by and large, whether they’re English as a second language or whatever ethnic group, we all agree we want them all to read, to be able to do basic mathematics, so of course they should be writing the test. To throw up our hands and say there’s so many diverse groups, there isn’t any group that I can think of that I don’t want to be able to read."
Comparing schools based on their test scores is the most contentious issue, but comparisons are also part of life, says Zwaagstra.
Saying we shouldn’t compare school test scores is like saying we shouldn’t compare success rates for surgery at hospitals, he said. "I would submit that’s exactly what we should do because that’s one of the best ways of keeping them accountable."
Low test scores should be a catalyst for change, he said. "If a hospital released statistics showing they had a substantially higher than average death rate for a particular surgery, I would hope it would motivate that hospital to look at how they do that surgery. I would hope they would not take the tack that we shouldn’t be publishing that data because it’s not reflective of all the other good work we do."
As for Premier Dalton McGuinty saying cellphones should be allowed in classrooms: OMG!
"If he’s got this idea that all these kids are going to pull out their cellphones and calculate complex calculus formulas, he’s got another thought coming," Zwaagstra said. "It’s a ridiculous idea."
Finally, sensible talk about our schools.