Provincial Achievement Tests are inherently flawed in many ways. These tests measure only a small portion of what teachers are required to teach and what students are expected to learn. For example, did you know that of the 200 leaner outcomes in grade 9 science, only 63 (32%) can be assessed? Because these exams are almost exclusively multiple-choice, their scope is severely limited.
A major limitation with the Alberta government’s accountability system is the narrow focus on a few academic subjects. And within those few academic subjects, such as math and language arts, the standardized tests measure an equally narrow number of outcomes. Alberta has come to believe that a good education system can be made better by simply testing more. The budget of the Learner Assessment Branch that administers Provincial Achievement Tests has tripled from $4 million to $12 million since the mid 1980s. Over the same period the budget of the Curriculum Branch, which designs and implements the entire Alberta K–12 ¬curriculum, has remained static at $4 ¬million. Alberta leads all other Canadian provinces in the frequency and intensity of government testing programs. Yet despite the millions of dollars pumped into its data collection, there is no evidence that these efforts actually help students. And so the millions of dollars used to develop, mark and report the tests is money that would be better spent on student learning in classrooms.
Using Provincial Achievement Test scores to judge a school’s quality equates to a kind of educational malpractice. Research has shown that up to 70% of the variation in student learning is not attributable to school factors but to student, family and community characteristics. This means that too many tests are reporting on what children bring to school and not necessarily what they learn at school.
Many people aren’t aware how standardized test questions are chosen. If every teacher could get every student to answer a question correctly, that question would be removed from next year’s exam. It would be replaced with a question that test-makers would hope roughly half would get right and half would get wrong. The better job teachers do to teach their students those important skills and knowledge, the less likely there will be a question on the exam to measure that skill or knowledge.
It is important to have diagnostic tools to assess our schools; however, using Provincial Achievement Tests to diagnose the learning in our schools is like using a tablespoon to measure someone’s temperature.