Saturday, December 17, 2011

Open letter to Peter Cowley

Peter Cowley is the Director of School Performance Studies with the Fraser Institute. Here is an open letter I wrote to him. Feel free to help me send this link via Twitter to Peter Cowley and The Fraser Institute.

Dear Peter Cowley,

Despite the research that builds the case against the use of standardized testing as a measure for the quality of a school, you continue to use Provincial Achievement Test scores to rank and sort schools.

Because you are a supporter of standardized testing and your website says, "If it matters... measure it", I would like to invite you to take the Math 30-1 and English 30-1 Diploma Exams this January so that your results may be published for all to see.

I look forward to hearing from you.


Joe Bower
Teacher, Farmer, Albertan


  1. So - we all agree the current testing solution is untenable and broken. Your solution appears to advocate for breaking the system in order to show how broken the system is. (Edited to add: while trying to find Deb Meier's original text and recommendation, I came across the Kohn Corollary which seems to be two wrongs are okay as long as the second wrong is nobler than the first wrong.)

    Yes. Politicians should take the test. They need to understand what the tests can and cannot measure. Have them take the test in order to address the question: what are the implications of focusing only on those things that can be measured in numerical terms?

    Adults should take the test in the time frame provided in order to have a frame of reference for the question: What are the implications for assessing all students in the same way at the same time? What are we sacrificing in a quest for expediency?

    We do not need to use humiliation (if anyone actually publishes their real scores) to prove a point. We do not need to use hyperbole to prove a point. Educators are professionals. I struggle to see how this solution does anything but make us look less professional.

    Asking adults to publish their scores appears to make no sense on its surface. Any adult who publishes a "failing" score will be lauded for his/her courage and is probably already against testing in its current configuration. An adult's passing score means nothing besides the fact they passed the test. If they all "pass", does that mean we can keep using the test? If they all "fail", does that mean we should stop? If that's the only reason we have for pushing for a change in the system (that is, the tests are bad because a small group of adults - politicians are not a cross-section - can't pass a test they didn't prepare for, aren't aware of the content demands, and have no reason to take it seriously) then, frankly, I'm not surprised the public struggles to see us as professionals.

    How about this much less provocative, and therefore less exciting paragraph: Because you are a supporter of standardized testing and your website says, "If it matters... measure it", I would like to invite you to take the Math 30-1 and English 30-1 Diploma Exams this January so you may understand what the tests are really all about. As an adult who hasn't studied the content on the exams, your scores will have little validity, but the experience will be critical for you to understand the consequences of using a single measure to determine the success of our schools and students. Please take the test so you can see the tension we experience as we try to encourage and support a love for learning while faced with external accountability that focuses on things that can be counted. When you are done, I look forward to discussing your findings and sharing alternative options for accountability that enable us to ascertain if tax payer dollars are being well-spent in public schools without needing to rely on a single, measure.

  2. I think we can all agree that there are "countless" important things going on in our schools that have nothing to with results or data, but still remain the focus of our day to day lives, and that is good. Peter Cowley and his crew of bean counters understand this completely, and wouldn't try to argue differently let alone devalue the great work that goes on in these other areas. As much as I too question the FI's ranking agenda, some of the quirky application of various formulae, and not to digress too far, the sheer number of outcomes in our math programs, remember, that is Ministry data they use, and achievement does actually matter. Educators make the case against the FI loudly and clearly every year, so the general public understands by now that it is not the whole story by any means, and like any other source of school information, you can celebrate it or refute it, but it is rarely helpful just to ignore it. Feel free to tell the whole story of your school, whether Peter Cowley can pass a couple of tests or not. PJ

  3. I scream every time I hear the phrase, "If it matters, measure it". Love matters, creativity matters, compassion matters. We don't measure that.


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