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.

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.

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.

Scrapping achievement tests is a big mistake

May 14, 2013

Published in the Calgary Herald.

In a giant leap backward, Education Minister Jeff Johnson recently announced his plans to scrap the provincial achievement tests 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 wrong-headed 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. This is a disappointing development, especially since 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 provincial achievement tests makes much sense. For example, Johnson claimed the current tests 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 why the tests are too stressful for students. Students have written these 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 provincial achievement tests on a single day adds to the stress of these exams. 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 may take up even more time than the provincial achievement tests. 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 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. This is a weak argument, since 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, gives a more complete picture of overall student achievement for that year. Giving tests at the beginning of the year removes accountability since it is easy to blame poor performance on summer learning loss or on last year’s teachers.

Finally, since 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 are 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 provincial achievement tests makes no sense. The Alberta government should reverse its giant leap backward and keep the PATs in their current form.


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.

Why not gauge progress with a follow-up exam?

Originally published by The Chronicle Herald, June 28, 2012. Original Link

Is it possible to walk and chew gum at the same time?

Apparently not, at least when it comes to education policy in Nova Scotia.

Beginning in the 2013-14 school year, Nova Scotia’s Education Department will change the grade levels at which standardized exams are written.

The most notable change is moving math and literacy exams out of Grade 12 and into Grade 10.

The government defended its decision by arguing that writing the exams earlier gives schools an opportunity to correct problems identified by the assessment. That part seems reasonable enough.

Getting reliable information about student achievement earlier in high school could help teachers better focus their instruction.

What doesn’t make sense is the notion that adding standardized exams in Grade 10 necessitates their removal in Grade 12. Assessment of student learning is not a zero-sum-game and there is no reason to assume students cannot write standardized exams twice in their high school career.

It’s like a car manufacturing plant adding an extra inspection earlier in the assembly line process but simultaneously removing any requirement to inspect the final product.

Without that final check at the end, no one knows whether the car was actually built properly.

Similarly, removing the Grade 12 standardized exams makes it impossible to determine whether schools have been successful in helping students master the basics.

In addition, during the transition period, no high school students will write any standardized exams at all.

Next year, neither Grade 10 nor Grade 12 students will write standardized exams which means no data will be collected on either of these student groups. It is disappointing that the government is willing to let several entire grades slip through the cracks.

Most other provinces require Grade 12 students to write standardized exams in some subjects. High-performing provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia require Grade 12 students to write standardized exams as does Newfoundland and Labrador.

Even Manitoba, the province that has systematically dismantled its standardized testing system over the last 13 years, has chosen to keep its Grade 12 exams.

Since many high school graduates go on to post-secondary education, it is important they be prepared for the reality that they will write many exams in college or university.

Writing a provincial final exam in their last year of school is an excellent way of preparing students for what lies ahead.

The current assessment philosophy in vogue across the country, including in Nova Scotia, is known as assessment for learning.

It emphasizes the distinction between formative assessment (preliminary feedback) and summative assessment (final tests/exams).

Because of this philosophy, teachers are encouraged to make assessment more about giving constructive feedback than simply measuring academic progress at the end.

When applied to standardized exams, it’s not difficult to see why the province wants students to write them at earlier grade levels so as to better use them to inform instructional practice.

What doesn’t logically follow is the idea that summative assessment becomes less important. You need both formative and summative assessment.

Thus, a balanced approach to the standardized exam issue would be to have students write standardized exams in both grades 10 and 12.

We don’t have to look far to see how this could look. In the Chignecto-Central regional school board, students currently write standardized tests in Grade 10 along with the provincially mandated Grade 12 exams.

Obviously this isn’t a problem, since their students have the highest academic average in the province.

Lest anyone claim standardized testing is an economic hardship, it should be noted that the entire budget of Evaluation Services is approximately $3 million while the provincial education budget is $1.1 billion.

This works out to less than 0.3 per cent of the total education budget. Thus, adding or subtracting one standardized exam has virtually no impact on the bottom line.

The Nova Scotia government should do the right thing and keep standardized exams in Grade 12 while still adding them at Grade 10.

More information about student achievement is always a good thing. In this case, we can have our cake and eat it too.


Purdue University study confronts edu-babble

Originally published in the Vancouver Sun, February 8, 2011. Original Link

It is wrong to force students to memorize information simply because it’s going to be on a test. Research shows that rote learning is largely out-of-date in the 21st century. Instead of telling students what they need to learn, teachers should encourage them to construct their own understanding of the world around them. The progressive approach to education is far more useful to students than the mindless regurgitation of mere facts.”

Anyone involved in education knows these types of edu-babble statements are often heard in teacher-training institutions. Education professors continually push teachers to move away from traditional methods of instruction.

A friend of mine who graduated several years ago with his bachelor of education degree told me the main question on one of his final exams: “Explain why testing is a poor way to authentically assess student learning.” The irony of testing students on their understanding of why testing is bad never seemed to sink in for that professor.

Unfortunately, this anti-testing mantra affects more than just educational theory in Canada. Over the last decade, Manitoba eliminated most provincial standards tests, while at the school level, many administrators expect teachers to reduce their use of tests in the classroom. These administrators claim that students benefit more from hands-on activities than from memorizing items scheduled to appear on the next test.

However, a new research study published in the Jan. 21 edition of the journal Science presents a significant challenge to the reigning educational ideology. Researchers from Purdue University had 200 college students read several paragraphs about a scientific topic, such as how the digestive system works. Students were then divided into several groups, with each group using a different study technique. The study found that students who took a test in which they wrote out the key concepts by memory significantly outperformed students who did not take a test.

A week later the same groups of students were given a short-answer test about the material in question. Once again, students who had studied for a test one week earlier substantially outperformed everyone else. Even the students themselves were surprised at the difference studying for a test made to their long-term retention of the subject matter. These results certainly challenge the assumption that students who study for tests simply forget the material immediately afterwards.

The lead researcher on this study, psychology professor Jeffrey Karpicke, noted that these results confirm the importance of actively committing concepts to memory. “But learning is fundamentally about retrieving, and our research shows that practising retrieval while you study is crucial to learning. Self-testing enriches and improves the learning process, and there needs to be more focus on using retrieval as a learning strategy,” stated Karpicke.

In other words, learning, particularly in the lower grades, has more to do with acquiring existing knowledge than constructing completely new knowledge. There is a core base of knowledge and skills that all students need to acquire, and schools are responsible for ensuring that this happens.

The Purdue University study lends considerable weight to the position that teachers should require their students to write tests on a regular basis. Although this does not necessitate the complete abandonment of other assessment methods, it does mean that professional development for teachers should recognize the value of traditional teaching methods.

One of the arguments commonly used against this approach is that it encourages rote learning instead of critical thinking.

The problem with this argument is it creates a false dichotomy, since critical thinking can only take place if students possess the necessary knowledge base about a subject matter. For example, students who memorize their basic math facts are far better positioned to master complex mathematical concepts than those who never learn them.

In addition, if we want to help students retain the knowledge they acquire in school, it makes sense for schools to require students to write final exams in core subject areas. It is not difficult to see how the process of studying for final exams helps students retain key concepts from their courses. None of this means that teachers should rely exclusively on making students memorize information for tests. However, we must ensure that testing remains a central component of what happens in school.