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.