Thursday, March 28, 2013

Is Alberta changing their standardized tests?

Alberta's Education Minister Jeff Johnson has talked for some time now about how Alberta's Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) are going to change. Information about how they will change is hard to come by and only occasional musings in the press from Minister Johnson provide any insight. Expectations are high but details are scant.

Here's what we know so far:

  • These new provincial tests (replacing grades 3, 6, and 9) will evaluate students' abilities more broadly. The shift is being described as a change from evaluating content coverage to something vaguely defined as "competencies" with a focus on numeracy and literacy.
  • No changes will be made this year but prototype tests could roll out as early as next year. It is likely that grade 3 PATs will be the first to change.
  • "We don't want to abandon standardized testing. We just want to modernize it," says Minister Johnson.
  • The new tests would focus less on regurgitating facts and more on providing students with an opportunity to show how they can apply what they understand. In other words, the new tests would care less about what students remember and care more about what students can actually do.
  • Parents want quality information on how their child is learning.

Here are my thoughts:

Assessing Competencies

The move from assessing content coverage to competencies is a sound one backed by research. Alberta Education and former Education Minister Dave Hancock should be applauded for such a move. However, Minister Johnson's somewhat confused messaging regarding sound assessment practices becomes glaringly evident when he asks for standardized tests that assess competencies. No matter where one looks where competencies have taken hold (now a twenty year old idea that Alberta claims is 'new') - there is no such thing as a standardized test that assesses competencies. The best way to assess competencies is via performance assessments collected in learning portfolios, and The Alberta Assessment Consortium and Alberta Teachers' Association have some excellent research on this topic here. Hopefully some of this thinking will inform the ministry.

Reporting Real Learning

Authentic accountability means that the public can access the information they need to know about their schools. In other words, accountability is really about transparency; and yet accountability begins and ends with standardized test scores which are anything but transparent.

If 70% of tax payers in Alberta do not have children in school, will they take the time to look beyond the limited and superficial information that a standardized test score can provide?
The best feedback parents can receive about their children's learning is for them to see their children learning.

No reductionist data or convoluted edu-jargon required. When we are offered the choice between the inconvenience of spending the time and effort required for observing the messiness of real learning with the arbitrarily convenient tidy test scores, I fear we are too often seduced by the spurious precision of the numbers.

Instead of moving beyond standardized test scores in favour of more authentic alternatives, we get Education Ministers who settle for merely "modernizing" standardized tests -- after all, it's safer and easier.

Inspiring Education and Standardized Tests

Through Inspiring Education, Albertans told the Alberta Government that they wanted "to inspire and enable students to achieve success and fulfillment as engaged thinkers and ethical citizens with an entrepreneurial spirit within an inclusive education system." Firstly, there are no standardized tests that assess engaged thinking, ethical citizenship and/or entrepreneurial spirit. 

Secondly, Albertans made it clear that they don't just want to "modernize" their education system -- Albertans want to transform it, and this requires courageous and collaborative leadership.

Ignoring The Profession

There is a big difference between keeping teachers passively informed and encouraging them to actively participate in the changes to Alberta's Provincial Achievement Tests.

The best decisions for the child are made by the child in collaboration with a safe and caring adult who actually spends time with them. Those adults are not bureaucrats or politicians -- they are the classroom teachers. Now is the time for the Government to work with teachers to develop alternatives to Provincial Achievement Tests. Again, here are two brilliant documents: Transforming Education in Alberta and A New Look at Public Assurance: Imagine the Possibilities for Alberta Students.

Johnson is Reckless

Trusting the profession means the minister must change his messages regarding the profession. Too often it appears Johnson tries to make change by imposing his will on those who have less power. First, he threw around the idea of merit pay (the bad idea that won't die). He threatened to remove teachers' collective bargaining rights with legislation. Using the teachers' registrar certification contact list, he sent an e-mail to 30,000 teachers, and now is being investigated by the privacy commissioner. He orchestrated an agreement with Alberta Teachers without including School Boards. And now Johnson thinks that Inspiring Education and transformation can be achieved by merely "modernizing" the government's current standardized tests.

Like his predecessor Thomas Lukaszuk, Johnson's strategy for transformation seems to be at best whimsical and unsophisticated and at worst inept. If aliens landed to observe Johnson's leadership, they might assume his strategy for enforcing his ignorance with the force of law to be: ready, fire, AIM!

Thanks to former Minister Hancock who set the stage for Inspiring Education, many of the conditions that will support informed transformation are now in place. What Alberta needs now is an Education Minister who is courageous enough to collaboratively create the conditions provincially so that local schools can be inspired and empowered to construct great schools for all.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "there is no such thing as a standardized test that assesses competencies" ... no such thing at the provincal level? at all? Like many others, I've given a raft of tests over the years that were meant to do just that, assess competency in general, and specific competencies (in the trendy "21st C" use of the term).

    Perhaps I'm a bit confused... feel free to correct my definitions. Competency = ability to put a skill into practice, scope of one's ability and/or knowledge. Standardized test = an assessment that can be consistently marked (repeatable, objective, results can be compared), not necessarily multiple choice (but these are the most familiar).

    Why can't one's competency be assessed with a standardized test? I'm not arguing that it is the best way to do it (all in favour of portfolios), but I can see a value, for example, in showing the same set of images (e.g. political cartoons, images from WWI, a graph, quote, etc.) to each cohort of students in a controlled environment and using the same rubric to assess their ability to unpack the information, decode the meaning, and respond to the subject with the tools and knowledge they have developed under my awesome tutelage. Maybe I'm missing something...

  3. Joe, I agree with your points above, but I have a different concern. This is a time when we will be undergoing cutbacks in education, at least for those who choose to remain in the profession.

    It seems impractical, and I worked in private industry before becoming a teacher, to even have standardized tests of any form, let alone new ones. There is a cost involved and I think the cost would be greater to develop new ones, particularly if, as you point out, the message and direction are fuzzy.

    This continuing to spend money at a time when the government is saying we all need to tighten our belts seems inconsistent with the earlier messages sent by the government about fiscal restraint. It is not sound business practice.

    Take care,


  4. Ivon, the problem with your criticism of testing is that for some populations, ie ESL students and students with disabilities, a lack of appropriate testing usually means that many of these children will be left behind. Even if these tests are imperfect, most families in these categories will accept the imperfections until new tests come along. These tests are essential to us

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