How Do We Assess Kids Without Tests?

Media Appearances, Education, Frontier Centre

Alberta has the most comprehensive standardized testing in Canada. Our students also consistently outperform pupils in other provinces on international achievement tests.

Yet Alberta Premier Alison Redford wants to ditch provincial achievement tests (PATs) for Grade 3 and 6 students. And Edmonton public school board trustees just voted to support Redford’s pledge to replace at least the Grade 3 PATs.

According to the motion, whatever assessment measures replace the PATs should “respect the principles of inclusion, equity and transformation.”

This edu-babble might stroke student egos and prompt them to belt out We are the World but it’ll hardly prepare them for the real world, where fuzzy feelings of inclusion won’t get you a job if you’re not qualified.

If we’re not going to have PATs until, say, Grade 9, how are we supposed to objectively assess a child’s progress?

“That is exactly the question we are grappling with,” Alberta Education spokesman Janice Schroeder e-mailed me. “Of course, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water,” she explained.

PATs determine if children are learning the curriculum and provide information about student performance so school practices can improve. They also enlighten parents about how the education system is doing. “Meeting those information needs is important and, at the moment, we do not have replacements,” said Schroeder.

Oh, dear. Standardized testing is a perfectly good way of measuring student progress. Alberta outshines other provinces on international tests given to 15-year-olds and suddenly PATs are pointless?

Look what happened in Manitoba when it axed standardized tests for Grades 3, 6 and 9 students. And Grade 12 students there do only standardized tests in math and language arts and the exams aren’t even marked centrally.

A decade ago, Manitoba students ranked about the middle of the pack in international tests, compared to students in other provinces. Now they’re second last, notes educator Michael Zwaagstra who wrote a recent paper for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy on the benefits of standardized testing.

Without standardized tests, it’s neally impossible to identify how well students are doing, he said in his study. Such tests make it possible to compare schools and pinpoint which need help. Yet teachers’ unions are the fiercest opponents of PATs, he said.

“Without a way to track student achievement or compare results from previous years, provincial officials cannot determine the effectiveness of schools,” Zwaagstra wrote.

In the paper, he wonders whether Redford promised during the leadership race to scrap PATs for Grades 3 and 6 in exchange for support from the Alberta Teachers’s Association (ATA). Good question.

“It’s very disappointing that the premier and now the Edmonton public school board is talking about scrapping some of these tests,” he told me. “When you take out those assessment tools, you end up operating in the dark.”

ATA spokesman Dennis Theobald says different tests could be given to different kids depending on what the teachers feel is necessary. A child shouldn’t have to take a math test if the teacher already knows the student is good at math, he says.

School boards could track and compare schools through sampling. “You don’t have to test everybody to do that,” he adds. “The dumbest thing you can do in testing, frankly, is give every kid the same standardized test … and hope to get something’s that educationally useful out of it,” says Theobald.

If this passes for teaching, good luck to parents trying to figure out how their kids are really doing.