Monday, November 17, 2014

Redefining High School Success- Alberta School Trustees Get it Right

School Boards across Alberta have made it clear that they want change. Their first ask, by means of a resolution passed by the Alberta School Boards Association,  is for a change in the weighting of the High School Diploma exam so that teacher assessments count for 70% of the exam with the “standard” Provincial component being just 30%. Right now, it is 50%.

For some time, teacher assessments from Alberta schools have been used by a great many universities and colleges across Canada as the basis for offers of admission. This reflects the growing recognition that teacher assessments are far more reflective of what students know and can do than many standardized, high stakes tests. It also reflects the recognition of teachers as professionals.

Changing the weighting without changing the nature of the exam itself makes little sense. The next step in this conversation is to imagine a different way of formal assessment through the Provincial examination component. When was the last time you saw a multiple choice test truly assess knowledge, understanding, skills and abilities? Would you graduate a doctor who had completed a multiple choice test rather than being examined for their real-life skills, knowledge and understanding? Why would we do this for the equally important high school graduate?

All of this is a small, but important step, assuming that Minister Dirks agrees with the School Boards. Next we need a conversation about the assessment of the non-academic but equally important learning that students in higher schools have experienced. Their creativity, resilience, compassion, persistence, emotional intelligence are s important to their development, employability and long-term contribution to society as their academic results.

What is perhaps most interesting about this strong position from the School Boards is that they are directly engaged in the question: what should become of our schools and how do we rebuild trust in our teachers ? After the debacle of Jeff Johnson’s tenure as Minister of Education – the first Minister in the history of Alberta education to receive a vote of no confidence from the profession – the school boards seem to be reclaiming their role as stewards of their schools and shapers of educational policy.

This is a start of a longer, deeper conversation about public assurance and assessment. We have a choice to make between what might be thought of as a spider or a starfish approach to this issue. The spider approach sees schools trapped in a web of accountability set by a government agency (often in partnership with private interests, as is the case with Alberta’s decision to make extensive use of a student engagement instrument) so that schools report up and are eaten up by the reporting of their work. In contrast, the starfish approach sees schools and school districts as responsible for their own forms of public assurance, which best reflects local conditions, local resources and school development plans. Rather than reporting up, assurance becomes a focal point for innovation, improvement and change. Spiders webs are what we have, starfish is what we need to become.

The Government should pay attention – decisions made nearer to the student and by those with the responsibility for the schools in their jurisdictions are likely to better reflect reality than decisions made by one of the 650+ people working in the Ministry. Decisions about public assurance, assessment and accountability need to reflect not just the outputs of a school, but the social circumstances in which the school operates, its own adaptive processes and capacities and its outcomes. Rich assurance versus standardized accounting is what we need to ensure that Alberta’s education system remains one of the best in the world.

A teacher asked me recently why it was that teachers were being encouraged to individualize learning, to be responsive and imaginative teachers with highly engaged learners but were subject to standardized testing? It is as if the government is saying “lets be flexible, creative and responsive, but not so much!”

The Alberta School Boards are suggesting we recognize the professionalism and responsibility of teachers. So we should. We should also encourage innovation, imagination and creativity not just in how we teach and how students learn, but how we account for that learning. The changing of the weighting of the Diploma examination is a small step towards a more engaged school system.

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