Monday, April 4, 2011

Accountability and the Provincial Achievement Tests: Myth and reality

This post was written by the Alberta Teachers' Association and appears here.

It's that time of year again when the attention of teachers, students, principals and parents turn to the provincial achievement tests.

Recently, at a social gathering, a parent referred to the achievement tests as "the Departmentals." When I probed a bit further, she told me that her Grade 3 child was preparing for the tests at school and that the teacher had provided home study sheets. During the conversation, the parent offered her opinions on the value of achievement testing. Reflecting on this and other conversations, I realized that the public has accepted some common myths and that there is a real need to expose these myths for what they are.

Myth #1: "Teachers are afraid of accountability."

The public has the impression that achievement tests are a valid measure of student performance. Teachers want real accountability. Teachers are concerned that a 60- or 75-minute multiple choice test, with a short writing component, does not fairly represent what a student knows and is able to do. Achievement tests cannot measure higher-order thinking skills such as creative thinking, research and problem solving and decision making. An achievement test cannot measure the development of a student's personal attributes that are so much a part of schooling. Attributes such as citizenship, a passion for lifelong learning and the development of healthy self-esteem are not included. As well, educational research has shown that standardized test scores are strongly influenced by the socioeconomics of the school population and the education level of the parents of the children. It is therefore not surprising that students in affluent communities tend to score better than students from the inner city. It is unfair and inappropriate to make generalized judgments about a school using the results of one test and to then publish test results in the newspaper as though they were hockey scores.

Myth #2: "The provincial achievement test results help teachers plan for instruction."

This argument is based on the notion that the provincial achievement test results can be used to identify students who are having difficulty and to plan for interventions. The reality is that the achievement tests are not diagnostic and are not designed to give information about individual students. The achievement tests were designed to provide a snapshot of how well Alberta's students have achieved the standards of the provincial curriculum. Teachers get the results of the achievement tests long after the student has moved to the next grade and often to the next school. At best, achievement test results can tell teachers how that group of students responded to the instruction provided. But the reality is that a different group of students in the classroom given the same instruction may produce very different results. The most significant variable in this equation—the students—differs each year. Teachers use many sources of data to plan for instruction and the achievement test results of last year's class are of little use.

Myth #3: "Higher test scores mean that students are getting a better education."

The reality is that placing emphasis on high or improved test scores pressures teachers to devote more and more time to test preparation. Test preparation may improve student test scores, but active participation, higher-thinking skills, cooperative group learning, and hands-on learning may be sacrificed. Teachers value these interactive instructional activities because students have enhanced opportunities to develop personal understanding. Emphasizing test scores sends the wrong message to students, "If you don't do well on tests, you're not valued." Students on a modified program or in the integrated occupational program are expected to write the achievement tests even though they have not been taught the same curriculum as other students. Writing the regular achievement test is another kick to the self-esteem of these students and conveys the message that they are not valued. The achievement testing program has become a tool for sorting winners and losers.

Myth #4: "Provincial testing is a good use of taxpayers' money."

The true cost of the achievement testing program is difficult to determine. The budget for the testing branch is $12 million, but that includes both the achievement test and the diploma examination programs. Alberta Learning currently spends three times as much money on testing as it does on curriculum development and support. Teachers believe that too much money is spent on "weighing the baby and more money should be spent on feeding the baby." The money spent on testing could make a positive difference in the classroom by providing curriculum inservice for teachers, expanding the reading intervention program or reducing the average class size. When the public hears the whole story, many people will question the wisdom of the money spent on five days of testing.

So, the next time someone begins a conversation on the topic of achievement testing, take the time to tell them the real story.


  1. I will refer all questions regarding PATs to this post!! Well done!

  2. Myth #2: "The provincial achievement test results help teachers plan for instruction."

    I've tried to make the tests here in Saskatchewan work for me this way. It has not been satisfactory. We make the plausible distinction here between proficient, where students can do something independently and adequate, where students need minor assistance. The tests don't measure this as the students are expected to complete them independently. This does not leave me with the sort of data I need. Additionally, some of the results do not come back to us until well into the year. They are purported to help with subsequent year plans, but that ignores the unique character of each group.

    Myth #3: "Higher test scores mean that students are getting a better education."

    I worry about our faith in the validity of these exams. They are so polished and clever sometimes that even a skeptic like me is dazzled. I can find myself glibly explaining the results of this single reading or writing test as if it exemplifies the best effort of my student. Inevitably, the parents are overwhelmed by the numbers and graphs just as they used to be overwhelmed by the long line of numbers in my grade book.


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