Alison Redford’s campaign platform for leadership of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta included a pledge to eliminate Grades 3 and 6 provincial achievement tests.
Elimination of the tests will come as welcome news to teachers, who have advocated against them for more than 20 years, but much work is required before Redford’s campaign pledge becomes government policy. Pressure from the Alberta School Boards Association and the Fraser Institute, both of which look for measurable results, could convince the government to keep the tests.
High-stakes standardized tests view education as an assembly line and treat students like boxes to be stuffed full of facts and figures. The provincial achievement tests are like inspectors at the end of the assembly line who open the lid and look inside the box to ensure that all the pieces are present. The statement of results sent to parents might as well come with a slip that reads: “Inspected by No. 24.”
Such a view of education is appropriate if you want your education system to push out identical cogs that take their place on some assembly line. This model is fantastic for ensuring high productivity when pushing out widgets. But how valuable is it in creating the 21st-century thinkers that we spent two years envisioning as part of Inspiring Education and that we’ll need for our future generation of leaders?
The Alberta Teachers’ Association has a vision for public education in which students are presented “with opportunities to develop ingenuity, creativity, critical-thinking skills and a strong sense of citizenship.” These attributes can’t be stuffed into a box and can’t be evaluated by simply lifting the lid and peering inside. They need to be assessed over time by a professional with an ongoing relationship with students, and they must be reflective of students’ individual circumstance and educational needs.
The Association’s vision of public education is neither confining nor uniform; rather, it is an organic process, similar in nature to a garden, which makes teachers gardeners who ensure that soil conditions are ripe for growth and that the plants get the right mix of sunlight, water and nutrition to grow healthy and strong. The serious gardener observes each plant’s behaviour, tracks its progress and makes adjustments when needed to encourage growth.
At a time when we want to create engaged citizens for a rapidly changing world, we also need to examine the tools we use to assess our students and to evaluate the public education system.
The proponents of achievement tests have an oft-repeated mantra: "If it matters, measure it." I agree to a certain extent but only if you add, "Measure what matters, because what is getting measured soon becomes what matters most." If we do it right, we’ll no longer rely on a tired model of assessment that churns out cogs; instead, we’ll nurture citizens for the 21st century.