Don’t Scrap Standardized Testing: Standardized testing remains an important accountability tool

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

During the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership race, Alison Redford promised to scrap standardized testing for grades 3 and 6 students. According to her official campaign website, these tests “are too stressful for students” and “do not impart the information we need to measure performance.” Premier Redford should reconsider this campaign promise. Fulfilling this pledge would represent a significant step backward for Alberta’s education system.

For several decades, Alberta has had the most comprehensive standardized testing regime in the country. These tests have been refined over the years and have provided valuable information to policy makers and to the public about the academic achievement of students.

As part of their day-to-day work, teachers create tests and assignments for their students to measure achievement. Everyone agrees these teacher-created assessments play a key role in the classroom and their use should be maintained. However, the flexibility of teacher-created assessments makes it is difficult to compare results from one school or classroom to another.

In order to provide a more objective measurement tool, provincial experts in measurement create standardized tests. These tests are closely correlated with the mandated curriculum and make it possible to evaluate whether students have learned the key curricular outcomes.

Thus, it is sensible to have a balance between teacher-created assessments, which often vary from teacher to teacher, and standardized assessments, which do not vary. Teachers are able to take local conditions into account when making their own tests, while standardized tests ensure that the knowledge and skills embedded in the curriculum are being taught and learned. Without standardized testing, policy makers end up operating in the dark when determining whether students are performing at an acceptable level.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Alberta students consistently outperform students from other provinces in the key areas of reading and mathematics. The main difference between Alberta and other provinces is the presence of regularly conducted standardized tests at a variety of grade levels.

Considering the many demonstrated benefits of standardized testing, it is unfortunate that Premier Redford chose to parrot the worn out arguments made by its opponents. Although tests cause some stress, not all forms of stress are harmful. Feeling a moderate level of stress prior to an important activity such as a musical performance, a sports game, or a school exam can be a motivating factor to strive for excellence.

In addition, Redford’s statement that standardized testing does not impart the information we need to measure performance is simply wrong. If the provincial government can specify precise curricular standards of performance, it should also be possible to design a test instrument that evaluates whether these standards have been met. While standardized testing does not give a complete picture of student performance, it does provide important information about specific skill areas.

Other provinces have already gone down the path of abolishing standardized testing, but their results are less than encouraging. In the 1990’s, Manitoba had a comprehensive standardized testing program in place. Upon the election of a new government in 1999, these tests were systematically dismantled, starting with those at the grade 3 level. Eventually, the grades 6 and 9 tests were also abolished so that Manitoba students now only write standardized tests when they reach grade 12.

Over that same time period, the academic performance of Manitoba’s students declined substantially. Data from the OECD show that, relative to the other Canadian provinces, Manitoba students now come in second last on reading and mathematics skills. Clearly, it would be unwise for Alberta to follow Manitoba’s failed policy direction on testing.

Standardized testing is a check against the foolish fads that often afflict our public schools. Many education professors actually disagree with the premise that public schools must transmit specific knowledge and skills to all students. They would rather allow students to decide for themselves what they want to learn and create their own knowledge base. In their view, it’s no big deal if this student-created knowledge base doesn’t include standard math algorithms or proper spelling and grammar

Requiring students in all schools to write standardized tests at a variety of grade levels makes it more difficult for these education professors to persuade teachers to abandon well-proven methods of instruction. Eliminating these tests would remove an important accountability tool in our schools. This is not a risk worth taking with Alberta children.

Premier Redford should reconsider her ill-conceived pledge to scrap standardized testing.