Saturday, March 26, 2011

Standardization in Alberta Schools

This post maybe of significant interest to Alberta teachers who are being asked by their school or school district to use common assignments or assessments with their students. It is not uncommon for directives like this to be justified by an administrators interpretation of Section 18 (g) of the Alberta School Act which states:
A teacher while providing instruction or supervision must subject to any applicable collective agreement and the teacher's contract of employment, carry out those duties that are assigned to the teacher by the principal.
Standardization and uniformity can be popular ideas in education.  Many have made the argument that it is only fair that everyone do the same project, the same assignment and the same exam; after all, if we allowed one student to personalize their learning, then we would have to allow everyone the opportunity.

I've done some asking around, and in Alberta, more and more schools and school districts have or are trying to mandate common assessments; in many cases, these common assessments are multiple choice, paper and pencil tests.

Some school districts have gone so far as to ask for teacher volunteers to attend local school district sponsored standardized test workshops where the teachers are trained in a blue-printing process for creating multiple choice questions. Then, they include diagrams, tables and pictures in the form that the kids may see again in future Provincial Acheivement Tests. Questions might be analyzed with such statistical tools as the Discrimination Index which is a useful measure of item quality when the purpose of the test is to produce a spread of scores or in other words ensure a kind of bell curve.

When it comes to Alberta school districts or schools that wish to mandate common exams, I have three significant concerns:

1. Pedagogical: As professionals, classroom teachers are the most appropriately positioned to assess their students’ progress and respond to their learning needs. Any effort to delimit this responsibility through mandates or external compliance requirements diminishes the professionalism of teachers and the capacity to meet the learning needs of their students. 
2. Legislative: The School Act, Section 18 provides that a teacher “while providing instruction or supervision must… (e) regularly evaluate students and periodically report the results of the evaluation to the students, the students' parents and the board.” Under the Code of Professional Conduct, to which our members are legally bound and held accountable, it states that “the teacher is responsible for diagnosing educational needs, prescribing and implementing instructional programs and evaluating progress of students.” Further, subject to Section (2) of the School Act, the Board must act reasonably in considering any potential directive that might diminish these duties.  
3. Collective Agreement: Any directive that teachers participate in district mandated activities outside of the regular school operating day raises issues related to the collective agreement. Any meaningful development of common assessments requires attention paid to logistical considerations such as collaborative planning time, examination security and the protocols for final decision-making.
Externally imposed directives that require teachers to meet one learner's needs by pretending all learners' needs are the same are precisely the kinds of obstacles innovative teachers must overcome if we are to ever improve our education system.

Standardization isn't the solution; it's part of the problem.

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