Alberta joins in the race to bottom

Province should reverse leap backward and keep provincial achievement tests.

By Michael Zwaagstra

Troy Media columnist

In a giant leap backward, Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson announced last week his plans to scrap the provincial achievement tests (PAT) currently written by grades 3, 6, and 9 students.

They will be replaced in the near future by more “student-friendly” assessments to be written at the beginning of the year.

It isn’t difficult to see the likely outcome from similarly wrongheaded decisions. Manitoba went down the same route in 1999 and the results have not been good.

Before its current government, Manitoba had a full system of standards tests administered to grades 3, 6, 9, and 12 students, similar to what currently exists in Alberta. Over a decade, Manitoba eliminated its grades 3, 6, and 9 tests and replaced them with performance checklists given at the beginning of the school year.

During the same time period, Manitoba students went from the middle-of-the-pack among Canadian provinces in their math and reading skills to second last. Only Prince Edward Island students turned in worse results.

Interestingly, Manitoba and Prince Edward Island also happened to be the two provinces with the least amount of standardized testing. However, Prince Edward Island recently started implementing standards tests for grades 3, 6, and 9 students — leaving Manitoba as the only province without any standards tests before grade 12.

Now the Alberta government plans to follow Manitoba’s example and join it in a race to the bottom. That’s a disappointing development, especially because Alberta has long been the top-performing province in the country.

To make matters worse, none of the reasons the government gives for eliminating the PATs makes much sense.

For example, Johnson claimed the current PATs are too stressful for students and need to be replaced by more “student-friendly” assessments. However, other than anecdotal stories offered up by testing opponents, no one has been able to demonstrate exactly why the PATs are too stressful for students.

Students have written those tests successfully for more than 30 years and there is no reason why they should now be considered too stressful.

Apparently, the education minister thinks that writing the PATs on a single day adds to the stress of those tests. So he plans to replace them with assessments written over several days.

However, there is no reason to conclude that stretching out the time over which a test is written makes it any less stressful. But it does increase the likelihood more students will miss at least part of the test if they are absent on any of the test days.

Ironically, these new tests might take up even more time than the PATs. It has certainly been the experience of Manitoba teachers, particularly at the Grade 3 level, as Ben Levin, former deputy minister of education for Manitoba, acknowledged it in his book, Governing Education. They are therefore unlikely to accomplish the goal of freeing up more class time for instruction.

Another argument for replacing the PATs with an assessment at the beginning of the year is that the data will help teachers target their instruction to the needs of their students. That’s a weak argument, considering one of the main reasons teachers’ unions give for their opposition to standardized testing is that teachers already know where their students are at.

In other words, teachers shouldn’t need the data from a provincial assessment to provide good instruction.

In addition, writing the PATs at the end of the school year makes perfect sense. The PATs are an objective measurement tool that, when combined with the data provided by teachers from their own assessments, give a more complete picture of overall student achievement for that year.

Giving tests at the beginning of the year removes accountability, because it’s easy to blame poor performance on summer learning loss or on last year’s teacher(s).

Finally, because students are often most ready to learn in September, teachers will end up wasting valuable instructional time at the beginning of the school year. In contrast, virtually all teachers know that June is the worst time for students to try to learn new concepts.

So if we’re going to make the most efficient use of instructional time, it makes sense to have students write standardized tests at the end of the year rather than at the beginning.

Scrapping the PATs makes no sense. The Alberta government should reverse its giant leap backward and keep the PATs in their current form.

Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre. He’s a Manitoba high school teacher, and co-author of the book, “What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.”

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