Failing the test over provincial exams

The Alberta government is about to do something that’s going to hurt kids across the province.

The Alberta government is about to do something that’s going to hurt kids across the province.

Thomas Lukaszuk, Alberta’s education minister, says he will end the province-wide elementary school achievement tests — or PATs as they are known — that have been written each year for decades by virtually all of the province’s Grade 3 and Grade 6 students.

While the education minister has stated that the PATs will be replaced with another form of assessment, he has vowed that any new tests will be designed so the results cannot be used to compare the academic performance of students at one school with those at another.

Lukaszuk has decided that comparisons, such as those contained in the Fraser Institute’s Report Card on Alberta’s Elementary Schools, are “a misuse of the data.” Yet, it is precisely its comparison-making capacity that makes the Fraser Institute’s school report cards so popular with parents and improvement-oriented educators alike.

So why is it important for anyone to be able to compare schools?

Here’s an example: The principal at an elementary school and her primary grades teachers are developing a plan to improve their students’ academic performance and they want to get ideas on what to do and what achievable targets to set. The school serves the children of lower income families; almost half of the students are ESL (English as a second language) learners and somewhere between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of them have recognized special needs.

Using the interactive features on the institute’s website, www.compareschoolrankings.org, the team can, in seconds, identify other schools in the province whose students have similar family and personal characteristics and yet have achieved generally better results over the past five years.

With that information in hand, the team can get practical ideas for improvement from their colleagues at the higher performing schools and perhaps adopt those schools’ actual results as achievable targets.

Who benefits from these well-designed improvement plans? The students, of course.

But Lukaszuk says that’s a misuse of data and won’t be tolerated.

Here’s another example: Teaching teams can directly use the PAT results to the benefit of their students. The results show the team the specific areas of the curriculum that have been mastered by their students and areas in which the students fell short. This feedback can be used to focus improvement of the teaching team’s methods on the areas that need it the most.

It’s hard to see how improving teaching effectiveness can be considered a misuse of the PAT data.

There are many other ways that educators, parents, researchers, and school board and ministry officials can use the PAT data and the Institute’s report cards to help provide a better education to Alberta’s children.

Indeed, with all the positive contributions the PATs can make to the future of the province, why is the government committed to getting rid of them?

The arguments offered by the minister and Premier Alison Redford for eliminating the tests should receive a failing grade. Lukaszuk’s only argument for ditching the tests is that the Fraser Institute uses the results to produce school performance reports. That’s it. Clearly the minister is not a fan of the institute’s school report cards. But surely that is not reason enough to eliminate the testing and deny the children of Alberta the chance of a better education.

Redford’s argument for eliminating the tests is just as weak. The premier reportedly claimed the tests should be stopped because they are too stressful for kids. She has never said why these particular tests are any more stressful than any of the other dozens of tests that elementary students write each school year.

According to international testing, Alberta ranks among the most successful education systems in the world in terms of the level of skills among 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science. The PATs have been an important part of the Alberta educational success story for more than two decades.

If Lukaszuk and Redford want to ensure that the province offers even better learning opportunities to all its children year after year, they should champion the PATs, not eliminate them. After all, such testing provides the measurements upon which effective improvement plans are based.

Peter Cowley is director of school performance studies at the Fraser Institute and can be reached at peter.cowley@fraserinstitute.org. This column is provided by Troy Media (www.troymedia.com).

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