Sunday, November 02, 2014

School Accountability in Alberta - Fit for Purpose or in Need of Change

When Premier Redford committed to ending Provincial Achievement Testing and moving instead to a system of assessments for learning – assessments aimed at helping students, parents and teachers better understand where students were in their learning journey – no one other than the Fraser Institute appeared concerned. There were issues about how student learning assessments (SLA’s) would be undertaken, but these were seen as logistical and tactical rather than strategic. Later some, notably David Staples of the Edmonton Journal, suggested that the SLA’s were just another example of “fuzzy” education-think and not in the interests of the system – but this was after he had drummed up anxiety about Alberta’s maths education and the performance of our students on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Jeff Johnson, sometime Minister of Education, managed to find a way of converting SLA’s into something they were never intended to be: a key part of the accountability system for Alberta. Rather than focusing on assessments for learning,  Alberta Education will use data from these assessments to develop assessments of learning as part of the emerging “new” accountability regime. Think carefully: something intended to primarily help teachers better understand where each child is in their learning journey has been hijacked to become something it was not intended to be: part of the accountability pillar.

Accountability is a contested space – just look at the issue in the United States or England. Governments seem to think that testing students often improves accountability, yet the compelling evidence suggests that all this does is weaken the focus on learning and drive education more and more to a focus on getting students to jump through hurdles which have no real subsequent value or meaning to them in terms of social wellbeing, career or a life-long commitment to learning.

Perhaps the strongest example of what testing does to “screw up” education and learning can be seen in China. Yong Zhao provides a compelling and masterful account of education in China in his book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World He describes how China manipulates assessment activities and how such activities are embedded in the system of rote learning that dominates the elite education system, which is all that PISA assessed.  He also notes that China has “a well-designed and continuously perfected machine that effectively and efficiently transmits a narrow band of predetermined content and cultivates prescribed skills…. and, because it is the only path to social mobility, people follow it eagerly”. Diane Ravitch reviews this book extensively in the New York Review of Books and compares developments in China to those in the US – developments that should worry is all.

Trying to rethink accountability is a tough challenge. Marc Tucker of the US National Centre for Education and the Economy has outlined an approach to accountability which he thinks is new, at least for the US. He is seeking fewer, better quality testing moments in a student career (down from 12 to 3) and better use of big data and analytics to look at these data; a stronger focus on professional development and support for teachers with less time spent on administration and more on collaboration; and finally, a stronger focus on peer to peer accountability than top-down accountability.

In the UK, the role of OFSTED (school inspectors) is now being challenged by head teachers and others. Indeed, there is a recent call to scrap the “Spanish inquisition-like” inspections. Others have suggested that the focus for such inspections needs to change. In the UK such inspections together with assessments of learning form the basis of the accountability regime. So called “failing schools” – schools which do not meet inspection standards and where test results show persistently poor outcomes – can  be subject to “special measures” which can include the replacement of the management team, scrutiny of teaching, restructuring of the teaching team, change of status of the school and the replacement of governors.  

Here in Alberta a loose coalition is working on this same challenge – how can we shift our understanding of “accountability” away from testing so that the focus is more on improving student learning, school and professional development and community engagement? How can we develop a stronger sense of “assurance” for those who have students in school or are concerned about school performance that their schools are world-class and that students have strong skills in maths, literacy, science as well as a strong base in 21st century skills? How can we ensure that teachers are able to assess students in such a way as to ensure that their teaching and learning strategies meet the learning needs of all students, not just some ? How can we develop a collaborative, reflective and strong professional commitment within each school so that all students attend a great school? These are the questions being explored. This loose network is known as the Forum for Public Assurance.

To help with this work, Dr Sam Sellar from the University of Queensland, will speak in Calgary and Edmonton on the 12th and 13th of November (Faculty Club at 5.30pm) about how we can make visible the work that schools do. Given our context and our challenges, this is both timely and opportune. Sam is an excellent speaker – he was here earlier in 2014 sharing his critique of PISA – and will raise challenging issues for us all to grapple with. You can register here for the Calgary event and here for the Edmonton event. Be there – it will be worth it.

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