Saturday, May 18, 2013

Moving from Accountability to Assurance in Alberta Schools - The RIght Thing to Do


The public, through Government, invest in education at schools, colleges and universities. For colleges and universities we appear satisfied with generalized documents offering assurance – strategy documents, annual reports, reports to the community, some data on outcomes. But for schools, we have insisted on testing and test data reporting, league tables and various forms of intervention for “failing schools”.

Lets us take on part of the world – Alberta – and look at what we have been doing in terms of accountability.

For many years (since the early 1980’s) we have tested students at Grades 3, 6 and 9 on what are known as Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT’s) and reported these data school by school, district by district. This enables communities and parents to compare their schools against others and also to see whether a school is improving, failing or coasting. Since Alberta is amongst the leading jurisdictions in the English speaking world according to the OECD assessments, these PAT’s have been regarded by many as holding the schools accountable for pupil performance, even though these PAT’s provide a simple snapshot on a given day of what a student happens to be able to do.

Recently, Education Minister Jeff Johnson, following through on election commitments made by the Premier of Alberta, announced the phasing out of PAT’s and their replacement with beginning of year assessments which will provide a starting point for a students learning. The old PAT’s took months to analyze and the students had moved on before any data about their work became available. In fact, PAT’s were not for students or learning, there were for accountability. The new assessments are for students and learning.

Part of what is about to happen is due to significant changes in assessment thinking and the technology of assessment. Online assessments can now make extensive use of intelligent and adaptive systems to give instant feedback to learners and provide detailed feedback to teachers about the learning needs of those in their class. Pioneering work being done by researchers like Mark Gierl, Canada Research Chair in Educational Measurement at the University of Alberta,  and by the Alberta Assessment Consortium are enabling adaptive technologies to be used to foster meaningful and helpful learner assessment.

The phasing out of PAT’s is one of the very smart moves by Minister Johnson and is connected to a broader agenda for transforming Alberta schools. Yet to come, but in preparation, are major curriculum changes and changes to the underlying pedagogy of schooling. Not in the works, but needed, are reforms of teacher preparation and professional development, governance and resource allocation.

The shift away from PAT’s towards learner assessment as a more continuous activity focused on supporting the learning pathways for learners is a shift in accountability – away from simple measures and towards a model based more on assurance that audits.

Universities do have some outcome measures that are reported on annually – see the most recent version here – and each also is expected to offer an annual report, audited financial statements and mandate documents describing what they stand for, what their strategy for success is and what risks they face and how they intend to mitigate them. Colleges in Alberta are also following this same assurance process.

Its time for Alberta Education, the Ministry responsible for K-12 education, to follow this same path. Pasi Sahlberg and I suggested just this some years ago in a pamphlet Accountability, Learning and the Teacher – Edmonton: Alberta Teachers Association, 2010) – school development plans, with commitments to improvement and performance, provide a school by school basis for assurance. These plans, when coordinated at the district level, with an emphasis on realism and professional accountability for continuous improvement, will provide a stronger and more meaningful basis for public assurance than PAT’s ever did.

Not two schools are the same and each has different historiographies and levels of maturity and resources. School level development plans, each containing commitments to improvement, are the basis for 21st century accountability.


Minister Johnson has taken a bold and important step towards this new form of public assurance. Lets all help him get to the next step.

1 comment:

Hailey Andersen said...

As a parent of a child who received online schooling for middle school, I can say that our experience with technology and education was an extremely positive one. It will be interesting to see what role online assessments play in education in the future.