Manitoba schools need to get back to basics

December 19, 2016

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press

Once again, Manitoba students have ranked near the bottom in Canada in the areas of science, math and reading. The Program for International Student Assessment, an international assessment of 15-year-olds conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, showed Manitoba students are six months to one year behind students in top-performing provinces such as British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec.

Anyone who tries to dismiss these results as a one-time anomaly must grapple with the fact results dating back to 2003 show a slow but steady decline. The Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, a different assessment protocol completed by Grade 8 students across Canada, shows a similar decline for Manitoba. In fact, the latest round of Pan-Canadian tests placed Manitoba students dead last.

If the Manitoba government is serious about raising the academic performance of Manitoba students, it needs to do three things.

First, Manitoba should follow the example of nearly every other province and re-establish standardized tests at a variety of grade levels. British Columbia’s Foundation Skills Assessment for students in grades 4 and 7 and Ontario’s tests for grades 3, 6 and 9 students are good examples of effective testing programs.

Standardized tests are important because they provide a provincial benchmark that can be used to determine how students are faring. Well-designed standardized tests highlight areas of strength and also point out areas of weakness. Unfortunately, the near-total absence of standardized tests in Manitoba has resulted in a dearth of information about student academic performance.

It did not help matters when the previous NDP government refused to release what little performance data it had to parents and the public.

Second, the province needs to place a much stronger emphasis on the academic basics — and it needs to send a much clearer message that curricular knowledge matters. For example, despite some limited moves in the right direction in recent years, the math curriculum still remains tilted much too far in the direction of the discovery approach to learning. The other curricular areas, unfortunately, are also tilted in that direction.

As math professors and WISE Math co-founders Anna Stokke and Robert Craigen have pointed out, students must learn standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division as early as possible if they are going to succeed at higher levels of math.

Students also need to spend significant time practising and memorizing their math facts. Multiple research studies confirm that mastering the basics makes deeper learning possible.

When it comes to reading, schools need to do more than help students decode the words on a page. Students need content knowledge, which is the key to reading comprehension. All too often, teachers think of reading as something that can be taught in isolation from specific content. However, research is clear that reading comprehension soars when students have background knowledge about the topic. By contrast, if someone needs to look up the meaning of every other word in an article, that person will not understand the material and will probably not even try reading it.

Well-known education author E. D. Hirsch Jr. makes this point abundantly clear in his latest book, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories. Hirsch presents substantial evidence showing reading comprehension is closely linked to background knowledge. For many students, particularly those living in poverty, school is the only place they can get this required knowledge. It is, in fact, the only path to success for the many poor children in Manitoba.

It is not enough for schools to teach “critical thinking” skills, as if they exist in a vacuum. In far too many cases, schools attempt to get around the need for knowledge by teaching students generic comprehension strategies such as “finding the main idea,” “drawing logical inferences” and “close reading.” Hirsch clearly shows these strategies are not a substitute for background knowledge.

Finally, the government needs to promote teaching methods and practices that are supported by research, as do faculties of education. Obviously, students and teachers differ, and there is little to be gained from trying to force everyone to teach exactly the same way.

At the same time, some methods are more effective than others. As a case in point, there is a wealth of evidence supporting direct whole-class instruction by teachers and considerably less evidence supporting the “guide by the side” methods currently in vogue in education faculties and in too many classrooms.

Manitoba can do better. It will take a lot of hard work and a willingness to make changes, but Manitoba students and teachers are prepared for the challenge.

Mediocrity in, mediocrity out

October 22, 2014

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press

It’s been two weeks since Manitoba got the bad news on its results from the Canada-wide tests of students, and I’m still waiting to hear how the provincial government thinks it can arrest the slide.

The results from the latest Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) tests are, to say the least, very disappointing. Over the last 15 years, the reading, math, and science scores have declined from near the Canadian average to the bottom of the pack, even though Manitoba spends more per K-12 student than every other province except Alberta.

The current government has been in power since 1999. It should be ashamed of these results. So should educational leaders who have supported this government’s education agenda.

However, it didn’t take long for the government’s supporters to offer excuses. Predictably, Manitoba Teachers’ Society president Paul Olson blamed the poor results on the low socioeconomic status of Manitoba students. But other provinces also have many low income families, and they performed significantly better than Manitoba students.

Education Minister James Allum acknowledges that these test results are unacceptable. But, his so-called action plan shows he is attempting to deflect blame, just like the Manitoba Teachers’ Society, rather than accept responsibility for making substantial changes.

Allum said Prince Edward Island students showed significant improvement and Manitoba should follow P.E.I. by having more test preparation sessions with the students before they write the next PCAP tests.

He does not appear to understand what really happened in P.E.I. Prior to 2007, P.E.I. students had no standardized testing, and they consistently scored last in the country. Then P.E.I. introduced standardized tests at grades 3, 6 and 9 and used the results to sharpen their teachers’ focus on the academic basics. Not surprisingly, the latest PCAP results show that P.E.I. students have made substantial gains.

Teaching Manitoba students the tricks of test-taking will not lift them from the bottom. Rather, the government should use standardized testing to evaluate student achievement in key subject areas at various grade levels, like P.E.I. recently did. The results of the tests should be made public — as they are in every other province — so parents know how well their children are doing. Standardized testing reminds schools of the importance of the core academics and focuses teachers on the curriculum.

Allum also said that he is committed to “ensuring better accountability by working with school divisions to set goals and track progress in essential math and reading skills.” Manitoba is the least transparent province in the country when it comes to student achievement; the government has a long way to go.

Last year, the government reluctantly made important changes to the math curriculum when it restored standard algorithms and declared that students must memorize basic math facts. But most schools still use discovery-based textbooks, such as Math Makes Sense and Math Focus, which are more likely to confuse students than enlighten them. Better textbooks are needed.

In addition, considerable research shows that traditional teaching methods, such as direct instruction, help students learn the curriculum. Sadly, discovery-based methods are still pushed on prospective teachers in faculties of education. Discovery learning encourages students to figure out things for themselves and come up with their own ways of solving problems. This works fine for university graduate and post-graduate students but not so well for Grade 1 students learning how to add and subtract for the first time.

The discovery-based philosophy, also known as constructivism, is embedded in provincial curriculum guides. This is why academic content seems to receive less and less emphasis each time a new guide comes out. These guides need to be rewritten to place a proper emphasis on specific knowledge and skills.

If the NDP government is serious about improving the academic performance of Manitoba students, it must make a number of substantial changes. Focusing on the academic basics, introducing standardized testing at a variety of grade levels, publishing the results for parents to see, and freeing teachers from education fads would go a long way to lifting Manitoba students from the bottom in reading math and science.

It’s time to end the excuses and begin the serious work. Our students deserve nothing less.

Standardized tests benefit P.E.I. students

October 16, 2014

Published in The Guardian (Charlottetown)

Standardized testing has long been a topic of significant debate in the Prince Edward Island legislature. During one particularly heated exchange on December 4, 2013, MLA James Aylward asked the education minister why he “continue(s) to waste $1.6 million annually on these tests which appear to be having no impact at all on the education system and on our students?”

Recent data from the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) should help the education minister decisively lay Aylward’s rhetorical question to rest. Since the introduction of standardized testing in 2007, P.E.I. students have risen from the bottom in the country to near the middle in science, reading, and mathematics.

In fact, P.E.I. posted some of the most impressive gains in the country. Since 2007, P.E.I. students improved by 26 points in reading and 32 points in mathematics. Not only did the PCAP report flag these improvements as statistically significant, they were larger than the gains posted by any other province. This evidence suggests that P.E.I.’s standardized tests have led to a sharper focus on the academic basics in this province.

This stands in stark contrast with the province that now sits at the bottom of the academic heap. Over the last fifteen years, the Manitoba government did the exact opposite of P.E.I. and systematically abolished all its standardized tests, with the exception of those at the grade 12 level. During that same time period, Manitoba saw its academic results decline from near the Canadian average to dead last. While P.E.I. posted the most significant gains, Manitoba posted the most significant decline.

Interestingly, when it comes to per-student expenditures, Manitoba ranks near the top in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, Manitoba’s per-student spending comes in a close second to that of Alberta. In the 2010-2011 school year, Manitoba spent an average of $13,150 per student, which was more than $500 higher than the national average and almost $2,000 higher than what P.E.I. spent per student. Clearly, more spending does not necessarily lead to better academic results.

Nevertheless, standardized testing has its critics. Last year, Gilles Arsenault, president of the P.E.I. Teachers’ Federation, raised concerns about the $1.6 million spent annually on these tests, arguing that they could be put to better use in the classroom. However, this argument is merely a smokescreen. The reality is that the Teachers’ Federation would likely oppose standardized testing even if it was free since that is the ideological position taken by every other teachers’ union in Canada.

As for the $1.6 million cost, this makes up only 0.3 per cent of the Department of Education’s total budget. It hardly seems unreasonable for the department to spend 0.3 per cent of its budget on a reliable measure of student academic achievement. To put it another way, abolishing standardized testing would make it possible hire a grand total of 20 new teachers across the entire province. This makes about as much sense as selling off a hospital’s diagnostic equipment in order to hire a few extra surgeons.

It isn’t hard to see why standardized testing has been beneficial for students. With these tests in place, the provincial government now has a more accurate understanding of academic achievement throughout the province. This information makes it possible for the province to target additional support and intervention to schools with low results and also learn from schools that get better results.

Another benefit is that standardized tests help teachers focus their instruction on the mandated curriculum. Knowing that their students will be tested on the curriculum provides teachers with a strong incentive to cover the key concepts thoroughly. Without standardized tests in place, it is almost impossible to be sure if teachers have actually taught the complete curriculum.

In fact, both teacher-created assessments of student learning and standardized testing are essential for a balanced approach to student assessment. Teacher-created assessment ensures teachers can take individual student needs into account when designing and evaluating assignments and tests. Standardized testing introduces systematic balance with an objective measurement tool that makes it possible to determine whether provincial curriculum standards have been met.

When it comes to testing, the P.E.I. government is on the right track.

Is NSTU digging in against standardized tests?

October 8, 2014

Published in The Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

It looks like the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union intends to step up its opposition to standardized testing — again. The Primary Elementary Teachers Association, one of its affiliates, plans to feature a keynote address by well-known testing opponent Alfie Kohn at its upcoming convention later this month.

Kohn is one of the most controversial education writers in North America today. It isn’t hard to see why. Kohn opposes not only standardized tests, but teacher-created tests and assignments as well. He doesn’t think students should receive grades, supports no-fail policies, and is critical of any form of direct instruction.

On Oct. 24, elementary teachers from across the province will gather at Casino Nova Scotia to hear Kohn address them on the topic of “Assessment and Challenging High-Stakes Testing.” No doubt these teachers will be encouraged to do everything in their power to oppose standardized testing in Nova Scotia.

Hopefully, at least some of the teachers who attend this conference will see through Kohn’s rhetoric and examine the evidence. In fact, there are many reasons why teachers should support, rather than oppose, standardized testing.

Perhaps the most important reason is that standardized tests make it possible to measure student academic achievement across the province. Because all students write the same test on the same day, the results are more reliable than are the results of teacher-created tests, which vary widely depending on each teacher.

This does not mean that teacher-created tests are unimportant. Rather, they simply need to be balanced with standardized tests in order to get a true picture of student academic achievement.

Another benefit of standardized testing is that it helps teachers focus their instruction on the mandated curriculum. Knowing that their students will be tested on the curriculum provides teachers with a strong incentive to cover the material thoroughly.

For the provincial government to set meaningful targets for academic skills in reading, writing and math, some form of standardized testing is essential. Otherwise, there is no way of knowing whether students have learned the curriculum.

Parents send their children to school with the expectation that they will learn specific knowledge and skills. Standardized testing holds teachers and principals accountable for meeting these expectations.

One of the arguments commonly made by opponents of standardized testing is that they are biased against students from minority groups and from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are two main problems with this argument.

First, if it is possible to identify examples of bias on standardized tests, it is also possible to correct these biases. Rather than simply throwing out the entire test because of a few examples of bias, why not make the necessary adjustments to ensure that the tests are fair?

The second problem is that it questions the ability of teachers to help all students learn the curriculum. Teachers regularly provide special assistance to students who are disadvantaged because of their linguistic or cultural experiences, and it is reasonable to think that this assistance will be provided when disadvantaged students are preparing to write standardized tests.

Another common argument against standardized testing is that it is too costly and the money could be better spent elsewhere. This argument also fails to withstand critical scrutiny.

The Evaluation Services division of the Department of Education is responsible for standardized testing in this province. It has a total annual budget of approximately $2.7 million. To put this amount in perspective, the Department of Education has a total annual budget of just over $1.2 billion.

In other words, standardized testing would make up only 0.2 per cent of total education spending in Nova Scotia. It seems reasonable to spend 0.2 per cent of the education budget on a reliable and valid evaluation of academic achievement. Eliminating standardized testing in the name of reducing costs makes about as much sense as removing diagnostic equipment from hospitals in order to save money.

When Nova Scotia teachers hear Alfie Kohn repeat the same worn-out arguments against standardized testing this fall, let’s hope at least some of them reject his faulty reasoning. Their union’s misguided opposition to standardized testing is a disservice to students, teachers, and parents.

Alberta teachers’ union misses the point about SLAs

October 1, 2014

The Alberta Teachers’ Association has correctly identified a problem but in doing so it has missed the bigger picture.

The ATA is worried about administering the province’s new Student Learning Assessments (SLA) for Grade 3 students. They say that teachers do not have enough time to administer and mark these assessments.

These concerns are well-founded. The SLAs were to be administered over a two week period and take up about four hours of teaching time. The ATA estimates that grading time would take about 45 minutes per student. With a typical class of 25 students, this amounts to more than 20 hours of extra work for each teacher.

This is outrageous, and it doesn’t take much digging to get to the root of the problem. The SLAs are another bad idea coming from the Alison Redford era. Astute political observers will recall that Redford won the Progressive Conservative leadership race largely by convincing thousands of non-PC supporters to take out party memberships and vote for her. Many of these were teachers.

Redford promised that she would scrap most of the province’s standardized tests and replace them with individualized learning assessments. Consequently, the Grade 3 tests have been replaced and grades 6 and 9 tests will soon follow. Redford is gone from the legislature, but her shortsighted policies, like this one, still remain on the agenda. Little did Redford’s enthusiastic union supporters realize that her SLAs would be a far greater burden for their members than the standardized tests they wanted abolished.

Instead of acknowledging the boondoggle it helped create, the ATA has focused on the teachers’ preparation time. The ATA apparently has no problem with scrapping well-designed standardized tests, and replacing them with inferior SLAs.  But, now it realizes that teachers need much more time to grade them. In other words, they want school boards to simply give teachers release time from their classroom responsibilities to grade these tests.

Unfortunately, the ATA’s proposed solution treats the symptom, not the problem. Replacing end-of-year standardized tests with process-based assessments at the beginning of the year always takes valuable time away from the work that teachers and students should be doing. That is exactly what happened in Manitoba when the government scrapped the Grade 3 standardized test.

Instead of giving teachers more time to teach, the new process-based assessment at the beginning of the year resulted in significantly less time. When the Manitoba government introduced similar assessments at higher grade levels, even more class time was lost. Throughout this process, Manitoba saw its achievement levels in math, science, and reading decline more than any other province.

While class time is always valuable, teachers know that it is most valuable at the beginning of the school year. During September and October, teachers are establishing important classroom routines, getting to know their students, and introducing new concepts. By the time June rolls around, students and teachers are often ready for end-of-the-year exams, whether standardized or teacher-created, to help students remain motivated and focused.

In contrast, the new SLAs will take away class time at the beginning of the year when teachers and students are ready to learn new concepts. Then, if ATA has its way, substitute teachers will be in the classroom to give teachers the time they need to grade the SLAs. As a result, Alberta students will lose valuable class time with their regular teachers.

The ATA is right to complain about the time the SLAs will take up, but is wrong to suggest that school boards hire substitute teachers to take over classrooms while teachers grade these assessments. Instead, the obvious solution is to reject Alison Redford’s misguided promise to abolish year-end standardized testing.

Premier Jim Prentice has a short window of opportunity to abandon the failed education policies of his predecessor and return to the path that helped Alberta become one of the top performing jurisdictions in the world. He needs to repudiate the misguided “Inspiring Education” agenda and retain the existing standardized tests at the end of the school year.

A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Saskatchewan

September 18, 2014

Saskatchewan parents who are frustrated with fuzzy math assignments, confusing report cards, and low academic standards are about to get some much-needed help. Today, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy has released A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Saskatchewan. This handbook, written by Frontier research fellow and classroom teacher Michael Zwaagstra, shines a light on the many education fads promoted by the Department of Education.

“Parents are tired of the endless stream of failed education fads that keep resurfacing in our schools,” explains Zwaagstra. This handbook shows parents that, contrary to what they hear from superintendents and curriculum consultants, there is compelling research evidence for the effectiveness of traditional teaching methodologies.

Zwaagstra sifts through the research studies and shows that many of the most common education fads (i.e. discovery learning, multiple intelligences, learning styles, etc.) lack empirical evidence. “It’s time we stop wasting our time on useless fads and start focusing on actually improving instruction in our schools,” concludes Zwaagstra.

This handbook also makes the case for report cards that make sense to students and parents. Zwaagstra shows that the reasons school board officials often give for removing percentage grades from report cards fail to withstand scrutiny. Parents have a right to demand that their children receive report cards that make sense.

A Parents’ Guide to Common Sense Education in Saskatchewan will empower parents and other concerned citizens by providing the information they need to push back against public education’s foolish fads.

Manitoba needs to reverse its steep academic decline

July 17, 2014

Manitoba has had fifteen years of academic decline in reading, math, and science. That is the track record of the current NDP government. Once near the Canadian average, Manitoba now sits second last out of the Canadian provinces.

In a study recently released by the C. D. Howe Institute, John Richards analyzed data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Every three years, PISA tests more than 500,000 fifteen-year-old students from approximately 65 countries in the core competencies of math, reading, and science. Students from all provinces participated in the latest PISA tests.

Richards noted that from 2000 to the present, Manitoba was one of only two provinces (the other being Prince Edward Island) to experience a statistically significant decline in all three competency areas. To make matters worse, only Manitoba’s math and reading results declined by 35 points.

Interestingly, when it comes to per-student expenditures, Manitoba ranks near the top in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, Manitoba’s per-student spending comes in a close second to that of Alberta. In the 2010-2011 school year, Manitoba spent an average of $13,150 per student, which was more than $500 higher than the national average. Clearly, more spending does not necessarily lead to better academic results.

Richards used the worldwide PISA data to examine education policies that seem to improve student achievement. Most notably, high-performing jurisdictions give schools more autonomy while simultaneously expecting them to publicly report their students’ academic achievement levels.

Unfortunately, Manitoba does the exact opposite. Schools and teachers have little autonomy since the provincial government dictates everything from school year schedules to report card comments. At the same time, the province has systematically abolished all standardized tests except for two administered at the grade 12 level. But, shamefully, the results of the tests are kept hidden from the public.

In fact, when it comes to student achievement, Manitoba is the most secretive province in the country. No other province goes to such lengths to keep the public in the dark about how students are doing. If it weren’t for international tests such as PISA, Manitobans would have no idea that student achievement has been falling for 15 years.

If the Manitoba government wants to improve student achievement, it needs to take a serious look at provincial curricula and ask whether the necessary academic content is clearly prescribed.

Fortunately, the government took a good first step last year when it listened to mathematicians and put the standard algorithms back into the math curriculum. It needs to follow through by examining other whether similar changes should be made in other subjects. For example, a stronger focus on spelling and grammar in English Language Arts would probably be a good idea.

In addition, the government needs to cut down on its tendency to micromanage so many issues. During the last decade, a huge amount of time and energy has been wasted debating things such as school board amalgamations, mandatory physical education credits for grade 11 and 12 students, and the province-wide school closure moratorium. Add to this list the new provincial report card and the headaches its implementation has caused for teachers and parents, and it is not hard to conclude that the government has lost its way, at least in education.

Finally, the government should acknowledge that it was a mistake to abolish standardized testing. These tests play an essential role in measuring and reporting on student achievement. Instead of simply relying on PISA results every three years to identify problems, the government needs to institute annual standardized tests at several grade levels and make sure the results become public.

If designed and implemented properly, standardized testing will bring a much-needed focus to Manitoba’s education system. By highlighting student achievement, school administrators will get the message that they must not lose sight of this essential goal. It may even cause them to think twice before blindly adopting the latest education fad without first examining the evidence for its effectiveness.

Manitoba’s education system has been in decline for the last fifteen years. It is time we reverse this negative trend and make student academic achievement the primary focus.

Let’s treat teachers like they’re professionals

May 28, 2014

Published in the Calgary Herald

It’s not easy being a teacher. Teachers receive most of the blame when things go wrong, but they are powerless to make real changes in the system. That’s because they have little choice but to follow the directives of administrators who impose unproven fads on them.

Perhaps the most pervasive fad is that a teacher should be “a guide on the side” rather than “a sage on the stage.” In other words, teachers are encouraged to let students discover facts and concepts on their own and avoid direct instruction. This approach is known as constructivism. Though popular with school administrators, good evidence for the effectiveness of constructivism is severely lacking, as former Harvard education professor Jeanne Chall documented in her comprehensive book, The Academic Achievement Challenge: What Really Works in the Classroom.

Despite the lack of evidence for constructivism, many teachers are under enormous pressure to use this ideology in their teaching. In fact, their professional evaluations often hinge on adopting student-centred methodologies. Thus, a teacher who delivers clear, tightly focused math lessons to her students may receive a worse evaluation than a teacher who encourages students to come up with their own ways of solving math problems — even if students learned better under the first teacher.

Unfortunately, the Alberta government is poised to take the coercion of teachers to the next level. Education Minister Jeff Johnson’s Task Force for Teaching Excellence recently released a series of recommendations regarding teacher certification and evaluation. What stands out is the task force’s insistence that all teachers must “shift from the dissemination of information and recall of facts to a greater focus on inquiry and discovery.”

In other words, the task force wants teachers to adopt constructivist methodologies. It will do this by having principals evaluate teachers on the degree to which they conform to Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative, which is built on constructivist ideology. That is, ideological commitment will become more important than teaching effectiveness.

The coercion of teachers can also be seen in other areas. When grading students, teachers across the country are forced to follow the dictates of assessment gurus who advocate against awarding zeros for incomplete work, oppose reducing grades for lateness, and insist that all report card marks and comments reflect curricular outcomes and not student behaviour or other important criteria. As a sign of how seriously school administrators take these recommendations, Edmonton teacher Lynden Dorval lost his job in 2012 for refusing to comply with his school’s no-zero policy.

In Nova Scotia, teachers must follow onerous guidelines when writing report card comments. Instead of letting teachers use their professional judgment, they are expected to identify, for each student, an area of strength, at least one required improvement, and a suggested next step. Teachers have to do this without commenting on the student’s behaviour. In order to ensure teacher compliance, principals spend time reviewing all report cards and making teachers rewrite comments that do not reflect the guidelines.

In a recent blog entry, Halifax teacher Grant Frost noted that these guidelines resulted in “an edu-jargon based report that, although satisfying the criteria, does almost nothing to tell parents how their kids are doing in schools.”

Frost is frustrated because teachers are no longer trusted to do something as simple as write their own report card comments. This frustration is understandable since teachers, particularly good teachers like Lynden Dorval and Grant Frost, deserve to be treated as professionals.

While provincial governments should hold teachers accountable, they are going about it the wrong way. Instead of micromanaging teachers and forcing them to teach the same way and write the same mundane comments on report cards, administrators should give teachers considerably more autonomy. In other words, let teachers teach in the way they think best — as long as they can prove that their students are learning.

This is where standardized testing, when designed properly and administered in a balanced way, plays a key role. Teachers should welcome standardized testing as a way to objectively demonstrate the effectiveness of their teaching. Give teachers a specific target that is based on their students’ past performances and let them use their professional judgment to determine the best way to get them up to that level.

The professional status of teachers would be greatly enhanced if administrators focused less on process and more on actual results. Instead of imposing burdensome regulations and dubious fads on teachers, administrators should set them free and let them teach.

Standardized testing is needed now

December 5, 2013

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a series of skills-based tests written by students from 65 OECD countries, has been published. The results aren’t good for Manitoba.

Compared with other provinces, our students rank near the bottom in mathematics, reading and science. To make matters worse, Manitoba’s decline continued a trend that began more than a decade ago.

In what looked like an obvious attempt at deflection, the Department of Education sent out a flurry of press releases trumpeting some of its education initiatives on the same day the PISA data were released.

Smaller class sizes, back-to-basics math instruction and new report cards all feature prominently.

Clearly, the government wants parents and taxpayers to believe that everything is under control in the public schools. Don’t worry about the declining performance of our students, look at all the good things that are happening.

Now some of these initiatives do have promise. Most notably, recent changes to the K-8 math curriculum requiring students to memorize math facts and use the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division will, no doubt, improve the math skills of our students.

The research literature, however, is inconclusive on whether class-size caps and new report cards will make much difference in student academic achievement.

Instead of engaging in a snow job, the Department of Education should answer one fundamental question: How will it evaluate the effectiveness of these and other education initiatives?

Commonly used criteria such as high school graduation rates, attendance rates and student attitude surveys don’t really tell parents and taxpayers much about academic achievement.

Since the PISA tests are conducted only once every three years, we won’t get the next report until 2016. If we remain with the status quo, Manitoba will continue being at the bottom.

There is a better option. Manitoba could follow the lead of every other Canadian province and bring back standardized testing.

Under the previous government, Manitoba students wrote standardized tests in grades 3, 6, 9 and 12.

Since the NDP came into power in 1999, these tests have been systematically eliminated, with the exception of the Grade 12 tests.

Interestingly, the elimination of standardized testing closely coincides with the steady decline in students’ academic achievement on the PISA tests.

Annual standardized tests at a few grade levels would make it possible to measure the effectiveness of new education initiatives. Instead of waiting three years until the next PISA test, the department should create its own tests that are based on the provincial curriculum.

With information obtained from properly designed standardized tests, the government could react more quickly when problems are identified. Provincial tests could also identify areas of excellence.

One of the most common arguments against using standardized testing is that those countries that have them, such as the United States, have worse PISA results.

There are two major problems with this argument. First, the standardized tests used in Canadian provinces bear almost no resemblance to the American tests. The narrowly defined, high-stakes exams used in many American states are much different than the balanced, curriculum-based tests used in higher-performing provinces such as Alberta.

Second, most of the top-performing countries on PISA (such as Singapore, Japan and South Korea) have standardized testing in place. Overall, the results show well-designed standardized tests can benefit student academic performance.

Without standardized tests to keep schools focused on the fundamentals, schools often drift away from an academic focus.

From school division amalgamations to extra physical education credits to social justice initiatives, the Department of Education has, over the last decade, focused on everything except improving the academic achievement of our students. Receiving a wake-up call every three years from the PISA results isn’t enough to make the department change course.

In order to move up from the bottom of the pack, schools need a sharper focus on the academic basics.

This will only happen if parents and taxpayers force the department to measure academic results with standardized tests.

Without this accountability, our province will continue to drift aimlessly until the next PISA results arrive in three years.

Then it will be too late for the students who are in high school now.

Saskatchewan students will benefit from more tests

March 3, 2013

Published in the Winnipeg Free Press.

Saskatchewan students should get ready to write a lot more tests. By 2016, all students in grades 4 to 12 will write yearly standardized tests in reading, writing, math, and science. This is good news for public education and, if implemented properly, should lead to improved academic achievement for Saskatchewan students.

While the province currently administers some standardized tests to Saskatchewan students, it does so only every other year. In addition, students write each test in only two or three grades. So while the current testing system provides a sample of student achievement, it is too limited in scope to have much of an impact.

A more comprehensive approach to standardized testing will benefit students in a number of ways. One is that these tests will provide the provincial government with a more accurate understanding of academic achievement throughout the province. With this information, the province will be able to target additional support and intervention to schools with low results and also learn from schools that get better results.

As for the concern that schools in rich neighbourhoods will automatically outperform schools in poor neighbourhoods, yearly standardized testing can do far more than simply provide raw scores. Rather, the province will be able to track improvement from year to year. So a school in a poor neighbourhood that shows consistent achievement gains would actually be considered more successful than a school in a rich neighbourhood that remains stagnant. This type of measurement can only be done if the tests are carried out on an annual basis in all grades, as the government has proposed.

Another benefit is that standardized tests help teachers focus their instruction on the mandated curriculum. Knowing that their students will be tested on the curriculum provides teachers with a strong incentive to cover the key concepts thoroughly. Without standardized tests in place, it is almost impossible to be sure if teachers have actually taught the complete curriculum.

Opposition to the standardized testing announcement came from predictable sources. In an interview with 650 CKOM, Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation President Colin Keess said that additional standardized tests will not help teachers identify the strengths and weaknesses of their students. According to Keess, this is because “standardized assessments are not as useful for informing the daily practices of the teachers.” This is a common sentiment among teachers’ unions across the country.

However, this objection reflects a misunderstanding of the purpose for regularly-administered standardized tests. Nothing in the government’s announcement states that standardized testing is expected to take the place of the professional judgment of teachers in their classrooms. Rather, such testing helps provide a more complete picture of student achievement across the province.

In fact, both teacher-created assessment and standardized testing are essential for a balanced approach to student assessment. Teacher-created assessment ensures teachers can take individual student needs into account when designing and evaluating assignments and tests. Standardized testing introduces systematic balance with an objective measurement tool that makes it possible to determine whether provincial curriculum standards have been met.

Another objection was raised by Patrick Lewis, an associate professor in the University of Regina’s education faculty. According to the Regina Leader Post, Lewis argued that standardized testing provides only a snapshot of student performance and not a complete picture of overall achievement. He also expressed concern that teachers would simply teach to the test.

However, this concern can be addressed by making sure the tests are properly correlated with the provincial curriculum. It makes sense to ensure the tests are broad in scope and go beyond an assessment of basic skills. One way to do this is to have the tests also measure content knowledge in the various subject areas. This should reduce the temptation for schools to sacrifice important subjects such as science and social studies when preparing for these tests.

As part of the announcement, Education Minister Russ Marchuk explained that 13 teachers from across the province will be responsible for designing these tests. While it makes sense to give local teachers significant input into the design of these tests, hopefully Marchuk also plans to include measurement experts in the design process. For example, Alberta has the most advanced standardized testing system in the country and officials in its education department could give valuable input about the proper design of these tests.

If designed and implemented properly, standardized testing should result in a better education for the students of Saskatchewan.