Friday, May 10, 2013

Provincial Achievement Tests are gone! Now what?

On May 9, 2013, the Alberta Government announced that they are dropping the grade 3, 6 and 9 Provincial Achievement Tests in favor of what they are calling "more student-friendly assessments".

Some history:

What we know about the new tests:

  • The new tests will be computer-based tests known as "Student Learning Assessment" and will be developed by "experts" and administered at the start of grades 3, 6 and 9. 
  • They will focus on assessing numeracy and literacy while also assessing competencies such as creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving.

Skeptically Optimistic

The proposed changes to Provincial Achievement Tests brings both crisis and opportunity. As a critic of standardized testing, I am happy that Alberta is removing the current Provincial Achievement Tests. 

In fact, I'm ecstatic!

However, while we are writing epitaphs for the old tests, we shouldn't stand over the grave too long. After all, someone who the government is calling a group of experts is already planning the next foray of tests.

I'm also concerned that many Albertans have come to define their successes and failures with Provincial Achievement Test results, but now that these tests are on the way out, many Albertans will experience a kind of existential vertigo - how else can they define themselves if not by fancy bar-graphs and shiny pie charts depicting their test results? Many Albertans will need to be coached through this shift from test-based accountability to public assurance.

There are a lot of ways the Government could get these new tests right and there are a lot of ways they could get them wrong.

Getting the new tests wrong:

  • Change for the sake of change is no better than tradition for the sake of tradition. If the only difference between the new tests and the old tests is their scheduling (spring vs fall) and their format (computer vs paper), they will only be "new" in name.
  • If the government maintains their monopoly over accountability and public assurance and develop these tests in secret, we will have wasted the opportunity to involve the public in public assurance.

Getting the new tests right:

  • The old tests were problematic for many reasons but here are at least three things the new tests should not do: (1) place undue stress on students or teachers; (2) unfairly rank and sort schools without regard for their unique circumstances in which they operate; (3) narrow educational opportunities for students.
  • The old tests were terrible at helping teachers improve their teaching so that students could learn more. The new tests need to be diagnostic in nature which means the information would be used to improve -- not to prove.
  • Ruth Sutton tells us, "Involving teachers, parents, students and the community in the process of assessment and evaluation is the key to a form of public assurance that serves to improve and develop our students and our schools, not just to measure them." The Alberta Teachers Association and the public must play an active and authentic role in designing and implementing these new tests.
  • Public assurance needs to be more than a one-time computer test . We need to design authentic assessments that support learning while simultaneously assuring the public that students are learning. This includes the use of project-based learning, performance assessments, and learning portfolios. For more on this consider reading A New Look at Public Assurance: Imagining the Possibilities for Alberta Students.
What do you think? Will a shift away from Provincial Achievement Tests lead to a crisis or opportunity?

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