Testing… Testing… Is it time to re-examine our strategies?

We spend millions of dollars every year testing every single student in grade 3, 6 and 9 in two subjects (English and Math). We have skewed the focus of education in every school and in every grade 3, 6 and 9 classroom by making results in those tests our one measure for the success of our education system.

First of all, it’s important to remember when we hear cries of alarm about students “not meeting the government standard”, that the standard is the equivalent of a “B”.
We could look at the numbers a different way.

The percentage of students who score “C” or better on EQAO tests:

Grade 9 math: 92%

Grade 3 Reading: 87%

Grade 3 Writing: 95%

Grade 3 Math: 93%

Grade 6 Reading: 90%

Grade 6 Writing: 95%

Grade 6 Math: 89%

We’re obsessed with the test scores; we put millions of dollars into them; we tell teachers and school boards we’re going to judge them based on their scores – but really all the scores tell is that, for the most part, kids can read, write and do math just fine. The results also tell us that we can’t really change the scores over time – you can push them up so high and then they just stay there.

What we know, from years of international standardized testing, is that you can only get the scores so high, and then they plateau.What everyone else in the world has learned is that you have to look beyond the scores and even beyond the schools in order to make a real difference for students. You have to start working on all the other stuff that affects students’ chances for success – like their communities; their access to full-day seamless support when they’re young; even their access to things like sports and the arts affect students’ chances for success in life. Other places have also learned that testing is a great tool when used judiciously. It is absolutely not necessary to test every single solitary student – you can use samples, you can test randomly and you can do small spot tests to find out what you want to know. Other countries have learned all those things, but Ontario is still stuck, relatively speaking, in the testing dark ages.

The other problem with judging a system by its test scores is that there is no evidence that it is an appropriate measure of success. What’s education for? And if we know what it’s for, then shouldn’t we measure how well it’s doing meeting that goal? Standardized tests are a kind of interior measure – but what about the exterior measures? Some people say that really we should be measuring students 20 years after they graduate – then we’d get a true picture of how we’re doing.

In Finland, which comes out on top consistently in international education studies, there is no standardized testing. According to Pasi Sahlberg, a former official in the Finnish education ministry who now works at the World Bank, Finland’s success reflects four decades of educational reform based on the idea of a single school system for everybody. According to Sahlberg, “Every child goes to the same school, and there is no school choice. Teachers focus 100 percent on educating and teaching children rather than preparing them for tests.”

In England the school principals and teachers have voted to boycott standardized tests for 11 year olds. The government already abolished testing 14 year olds and has limited the testing for 7 year olds.

According to Andy Hargreaves, formerly of OISE:

– Singapore urges its educators to “Teach Less, Learn More” and mandates that all teachers must have 10 percent of their time free to come up with independent lessons designed to enhance student motivation and creativity.

– Scotland continues to resist standardized testing, Wales has abolished all state testing up to age 14, and Northern Ireland is preparing to abandon the selective exams students take at age 11.

– None of the Nordic countries, which are among the highest performers on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), even has an indigenous term for accountability. Instead, these countries speak of collective responsibility.

Our upcoming conference on November 7th at York University is going to have lots of discussion about testing. We’re bringing in experts to speak from a number of perspectives and TVO is going to be there live streaming the conversation. The Minister of Education will be there too. Maybe we can all use this as an opportunity to re-think our testing obsession, and start coming up with some new ways to measure success.

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