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.