As the Premier of British Columbia considers fundamental changes to the use of standardized testing for students in BC’s school system, Alberta’s government insists on continuing to use testing as a basis for accountability and systems improvement.
Alberta’s primary newspapers also push the idea that the standardized test regimes suggest: (a) that Alberta’s global position as an outstanding education system is threatened by declines in provincial, PISA and TIMMS test scores (especially in mathematics); and that (b) teachers' cannot be trusted to appropriately assess students since there is a gap between teacher assessment and student performance on Provincial Diploma exams. “Testing shows we have a problem – we need more and more rigorous tests!” seems to be the mantra.
The Fraser Institute, which seeks to privatize education and promotes Charter schools, uses test data to rank schools and provide a critique of the work of professional teachers in public institutions. In this, they are aided and abetted by a compliant print media, whose parent company has frequently sponsored Fraser Institute events. So polarizing is this work that the BC School Trustees have called for an end to the use of test data for such rankings.
When the results of international testing, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) appear, Ministers develop a sense of urgency about improving test results. When these results showed a modest decline in mathematics for Alberta, successive Ministers call for “urgent action to strengthen mathematics education”, ignoring the significant changes in the character of school student populations and the consequences of their own inaction on the conditions under which students learn and teachers work – class size, lack of support for special needs students, lack of investment in appropriate supports for effective teaching. The inevitable conclusion, in the Fraser Institute thinking, is that public education, teaching, and the curriculum are broken. The solution - go back to old ways of working, privatize and test more.
Yet standardized testing tells us little about what matters most to employers and students.
What matters to students is that they fulfill their promise and ambition by developing as whole persons equipped with the knowledge, skills, understanding and socio-emotional intelligence to be active and engaged citizens. This was the strong and unanimous voice of young people who gathered in Iceland last week-end to explore the impact of their school experience, especially their experience of an international exchange and learning program. At the “More than your evidence” international summit, students from Norway, Finland, Iceland and Alberta met and presented their experience and challenged the educators in the room to focus on the broad aims of public education, not just test results.
One student, Natalia who is now studying at the University of Calgary, made clear that the most transformative thing about her experience of school was being engaged in the international work – staying and working with students in Finland and discovering who she was. Other students – Andi, Cody, Krista to name just three – agreed and added that, for them, the school was a place of discovery and engagement – not just about passing grades and completing tests. What they really wanted from school was to understand, both the subjects they were working with and themselves, and to be able to use this understanding to make a difference.
As an observer, the personal growth in these young people, many of whom we first met in 2012, is remarkable. They are confident, focused and determined young people highly engaged in learning. They all point to their international experience as being pivotal in their learning journey, but also to the way in which this work changed their relationship with teachers. Specifically, these journeys and activities opened shifted this relationship from a power-authority relationship (teachers have power and authority) to a relationship in which there was a co-ownership of the learning journey. Sigurd, from Norway, said that “my teachers now see me as a whole person and I can relate to them more directly as a person too – together we took a learning journey and now I am doing really well as an apprentice..”.
What also changed was their sense of personal responsibility for learning. I realized that I was not just “their evidence” – meaning that they were not just “a number who took a test”, but a person engaged in a meaningful search for knowledge, understanding, and skills. This is why the meeting in Iceland was called “More than Your Evidence”.
As an employer, I am interested in two things: skills and character. Skills I can source from anywhere in the world, but character is key (character trumps skills). In particular, curiosity, an ability to find and solve problems, teamwork and an ability to laugh at oneself and with others is key to working in my organization. The students I met in Iceland all had these characteristics and they had skills. Standardized tests tell me little about either the range of skills these individuals possess or their character – indeed, we never ask questions about test data, diplomas or degrees when we hire: we ask to see what an applicant has actually done and then spend time getting to know them. This is also the practice at major corporations, like Google, Amazon, Facebook and other major corporations.
The overwhelming majority of Universities in Canada use teacher assessments as a basis for admission. They do so because teachers know much more about their students and their abilities that are demonstrated by provincial diploma examination results or standardized tests. What we saw in Iceland was why this is the case. Mature, able, knowledgeable, articulate students who were fully aware of their strengths and weaknesses who work well in teams and solve problems made clear their views. If we lost test data altogether, we may have a much more equitable education system – one which does not favour privileged families over poor established Alberta families over recent immigrants or certain groups over others. The evidence is clear that standardized testing measures social status just as much as they measure skills and abilities.
As I reflect back on the summit, it becomes increasingly evident that is time for policymakers to move beyond the hysteria of falling test scores and the veiled attacks on public education. Not only do these irresponsible critiques attempt to undermine the public’s faith that Canadians can create a great school for all - they add to the growing anxiety of young people that they are somehow a failed version of what this country aspires to become. Those that claimed that the sky is falling by cherry-picking the latest 2015 PISA results, failed to point out that only three countries achieved higher results than Canada in science, one in reading, and six in mathematics. Indeed, if Alberta were ranked as a nation, it would be tied statistically for 10th place in mathematics and second place in science from 72 nations.
The summit title, “More than your evidence” will hopefully become more than a faint echo of the voices of young people gathered last weekend in Iceland. We need to focus more on what matters most for young people – having a sense of hope about the future that is built on recognizing their individual talents and gifts rather than preoccupying ourselves with focusing on testing programs that will only give us a better version of yesterday.