Sunday, February 22, 2009

Time to Rethink Alberta School Testing Regime

For three years now I have been writing, teaching, speaking about the need to give schools back to teachers.

The argument goes like this:

1. It is not unreasonable for government, which invests massively in compulsory education, to ask for some degree of accountability for how this money is spent. More specifically, to seek to ensure that schools produce the outcomes and that they are “fit for purpose”.

2. But schools are where teachers and administrators seek to transform the minds and lives of students. They are not places where information is transferred and regurgitated. They are places where life-ling frames of mind and skills are developed. What we need our students to be is skilled at disciplined thinking, able to synthesize and synergize across discipline boundaries, be creative and expressive, be caring and show high levels of emotional intelligence, be innovative and entrepreneurial, be able to make evidence based decisions (for example, about the environment or health care) and ethical choices and to be respectful of others. The curriculum is a vehicle for making these minds for the future possible – the curriculum is not an end unto itself.

3. Within schools teachers are required by law to work their way through the specifics of each curriculum area within the Provincial curriculum – now so packed full of “stuff” that there is little room for creativity or innovation unless the teacher is supported by strong professional development and support enablers, such as those available from – yet we do know that the more the curriculum is delivered through authentic learning task and challenge based learning (where the teacher sets a challenge which engages the students heart and mind and requires them to show the mind sets outlined above) the more students learn and retain and the more often they will startle us.

4. Teachers feel fear and anxiety more than excitement and passion. Why? We have imposed a testing regime on schools which tests all students in Alberta at Grades 3, 6 and 9 and then there are High School Diploma Exams. Schools who do poorly on these PAT’s (Provincial Achievement Tests) may experience a deep intervention by people from Alberta Education (there are app. 800 FTE working in this Ministry) so that they can be put back on track. Results lead to actions at the local level by school boards and superintendents. Teachers, under pressure from the Department and their District as well as parents to perform well on the tests, start to teach to the test and this distorts learning. Further, the tests measure only certain kinds of outcomes and not others.

5. Where does the curriculum come from? It comes from a negotiation (often painful) between teachers, Colleges and Universities about what should be in/out – as if the system was a flow through system from school to post secondary. Yet in Alberta, large numbers of students do not complete high school (the three year completion rate is app. 71% - meaning that 29% of students attending schools do not complete high school). One reason for this (there are many) is that what they are asked to learn does not resonate with them. As Sir Ken Robinson points out in his powerful video Do Schools Kill Creativity? (see it at, this conveyor belt curriculum distorts learning and destroys education for many – in our case some of this 30%.

5. If we could find the right balance between highly desired outcomes and learning as a process, we may do much better in terms of preparing our students for the future we need them to have. This will mean reducing testing – preferably starting with the abolition of testing at Grade 3 (a proposition to do so is currently before the Alberta legislature as proposition 503) – and rebalancing the curriculum to give teachers more room to exercise their own creativity and skill and to take more direct responsibility for the curriculum in their classrooms. It would also enable schools to get back into being a focal point for the community, with learning projects strongly linked to the community in which they are placed.

6. Other jurisdictions are looking very closely at these issues. Ed Balls, the Minister for Children in the UK, has abolished SATs testing for 14 years olds (Grade 9) – he also fired the agency that managed this process after startling levels of incompetence. Some 70,000 students appealed their SATs grading in a single sitting of the SATs. SAT’s will be replaced by teacher based pupil assessments. A new report, published on Friday 19th February, recommends the abolition of all testing for primary school students (elementary schools) in the UK since testing distorts learning and causes high levels of student, parent and teacher anxiety. More specifically the Cambridge review of primary education says:

"The initial promise – and achievement – of entitlement to a broad, balanced and rich curriculum (through the national curriculum) has been sacrificed in pursuit of a narrowly conceived 'standards' agenda. Our argument is that [children's] education and their lives are impoverished if they have received an education that is so fundamentally deficient."

The report authors add that “the curriculum is seen by teachers as "overcrowded, unmanageable and, in certain respects, inappropriately conceived"” – a statement heard time and time again from teachers in Alberta.

7. The diagnosis offered by the Cambridge review of elementary school system in the UK is applicable to the Alberta situation:

* Long-term educational goals have been replaced by short-term targets.

* Curriculum overload – many teachers believe far too much is prescribed for the time available.

* Loss of children's entitlement to a broad, balanced and rich curriculum – with arts, the humanities and science under threat.

* Tests have led to memorization and recall replacing understanding and inquiry as the key goal in the classroom.

* "Politicization" of the curriculum with accompanying rhetoric of "standards".

* Pressure at start of primary school to begin formal lessons too early with tests for four and five-year-olds.

* Excessive prescription has led to loss of flexibility and autonomy for schools.

* Historic split between the "basics" and the rest of the timetable has led to "unacceptable" difference in the quality of provision between the two.

* Mistaken assumption that high standards in "the basics" can be achieved only by marginalizing the rest.

9. The No Child Left Behind strategy adopted by the US pursued a similar rigorous definition of the use of time and curriculum, accompanied by a testing regime. Under the 2001 law, States must test public school students in reading and math every year from third through eighth grade, plus once in high school, and reveal the results for each school or face a loss of federal funds. Just as critical, schools must break out test results for certain groups: blacks, Hispanics, English-language learners, learning-disabled students. The law insists -- with consequences for failure –t hat schools make annual progress toward closing the achievement gap between rich and poor, black and white, and bring all students to grade-level proficiency in math and reading by 2014. Not unreasonable policy objectives set by those distant from the daily life of teaching, of balancing special needs with those of others and of scarce resources. This system has also led, like the UK and Alberta systems, to massive distortions and a “corruption” of real learning – just read the article in Time which documents some of these implications – it is at,9171,1625192-1,00.html

10. What needs to be done to recapture the focus on real learning? Here are some suggestions:

* Scrap singling out time for literacy and numeracy strategies and reintegrate them into the national curriculum.

* Restore aim of the original curriculum that children are entitled to a broad and balanced education (giving equal weight to core subjects and elements like the arts and humanities).

* Review assessment and testing arrangements – dubbed "the elephant in the room" – which overshadows the entire curriculum. Abolish Grade 3 testing. Look at the growth model for evaluating school performance. In this approach, schools track the progress of each student year to year. Success is defined by a certain amount of growth, even if the student isn't on grade level. This relies on teacher based evaluations (some investment is needed to prevent inflation of assessments) and on a rigorous look at the competencies/skills to be reviewed, which can be much broader than literacy and numeracy and could include such things as emotional intelligence.

* Devote just 65-70% per cent of time to the Provincial curriculum – with 30 per cent to a locally agreed curriculum (such as learning about local history, tackling local environmental issues as a way of looking at a set of skills and curriculum objectives). See creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship as just as important as literacy and numeracy.

* Rely more on teacher assessments and evaluations, which are shown to be as reliable (if not more so) than so called “standard” multiple choice tests.

11. In Alberta, we need to have a real dialogue about what we need from our schools. Right now, the system is driven by fear and anxiety rather than optimism and excitement about what students can do – and they can do remarkable things. Wouldn’t it be good if they were doing them largely because of the system, rather than despite it?

An earlier blog provides a power point presentation which you may want to look at. I also strong recommend you watch Sir Ken Robinson's Do Schools Kill Creativity. To see what young, impoverished young people can do when inspired and well taught, look at the achievements of the Venezuela youth music program - for example, a concert conducted by Gustavo Dudamel
- if this doesn't inspire this conversation, then nothing will!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Of course, the bigger question is not why we should use standardized testing, but why we would use argumetns AGAINST standardized testing that are based upon the same tired old rhetoric from the UK and the USA and the NCLB movement.

If you really intend to have some impact upon the Alberta Teacher's adn Public's perception of Alberta Testing, you must sooner or later use Alberta facts and arguments in your discussions.

And those facts must be verifiable. For instance, in point #4 (above), you claim that "Schools who do poorly on these PAT’s (Provincial Achievement Tests) may experience a deep intervention by people from Alberta Education (there are app. 800 FTE working in this Ministry) so that they can be put back on track."Where has this happened? In 25 years of teaching, I have yet to see this occur, despite seeing some truly atrocious achievement test results.

Further in the same paragraph, you claim "Teachers, under pressure from the Department and their District as well as parents to perform well on the tests, start to teach to the test and this distorts learning. ".

Really. Here's the catch - if your students fare poorly on a PAT - consistently worse than the other kids in the province, especially those of comparable Socio-economic advantage, then to what would you attibute that fact when you talk to parents? Would you suggest that 'the tests don't measure the important stuff'? Regardless of how 'important' you deem it, the other kids get it and yours don't. And if is, nonetheless, part of the curriculum.

As to the argument that this testing 'Regime' (I love the misuse of that emotionally-charged word) forces teachers to abandon good teaching methods in favour of mind-numbing drill, there is NO evidence, scientific or otherwise, to indicate that poor teaching yields better results on ANY assessment, standardized or otherwise. In fact, one is much more likely to find purposeful, engaging, problem-based activity adn instruction in the classrooms that do WELL on the provincial exams, and find the drill adn pratice worksheets in those classrooms which you claim are going to fall under provincial and jurisdictional scrutiny.

Bringing SAT grading into the same discussion as PATs is simply absurd. There is no correlation between the effects of a competence-based 'gatekeeper' test like the SAT (which impacts the students' next steps) and a no-consequence program assessment like the PATs (which provides feedback information to program coherence and teaching).

Trying to make the Alberta Provincial Assessments fit into the same categories as the British A-levels or as the NCLB or AYP evaluations is the act of somebody who clealy doesn't understand the issues, and is seeking to profit by speaking to an audience who can be stampeded by fear, not pursuaded by logic.

Distorting this issue may indeed get you more speaking engagements among those in whom you have engendered a heightened anxiety level, but it will do little to advance rational discourse of the issue. I doubt, for that reason, that this response will survive the 'moderation' process, but that's OK. I'll be in the audience at your next engagement and we can debate this in a more public fashion.