||Volume 14, Number 1, September 2001|
What is the real purpose of
by Ray Shindell
Numerous articles about standards and assessments were published in professional journals during the latter months of 1999, in the year 2000, and in the first months of the year 2001. The articles expressed interest and concerns about the effects of standardized testing and high-stakes testing on educational curriculum and standards in schools today.
Most articles described the U.S. scene, but they also pertain to Canada. As W. Todd Rogers, of the University of Alberta, states, "We are witnessing in Canada today, as in other countries, a marked increase in the use of tests and assessment." (The Alberta Journal of Educational Research, Winter 1999, p. 329)
Many professionals are concerned about how tests and large-scale assessments are being used. They have many questions as to the effects these reforms might have or are having on the education of the students. Rogers’ fear is that "we still do not have a full understanding of the purposes and uses of these assessments and the contextual factors that need to be taken into account to better understand the performance of the students and the schools they attend." (p. 329)
British Columbia has not escaped the onslaught of the test-and-measure movement. Standardized tests have been a prominent part of assessment for some time. The B.C. Ministry of Education’s accountability web page states the following purposes of the Provincial Learning Assessment Program:
- monitor student learning over time.
- inform professionals and the public on some of the strengths and weaknesses of the public school system.
- assist the ministry, school districts, and schools in decisions related to the development, review, modification, revision, and implementation of existing curricula and supporting instructional resource materials.
- assist the ministry in decisions concerning allocation of resources.
- identify areas of need and provide directions for change in both pre-service and in-service teacher education.
- provide directions for educational research.
- provide the province, school districts, and schools with information that can be used to maintain strengths and overcome weaknesses.
Since 1984, after a 12-year hiatus, the purpose of the Grade 12 examinations "is to ensure that Grade 12 students meet consistent provincial standards of achievement in a narrow range of academic subjects for the purpose of certification."
The examinations have two additional purposes:
- to ensure that graduating students from all schools in the province will be treated equitably when applying for admission to universities and other post-secondary institutes.
- to respond to strong public concerns for improved standards in education.
They have since added the following purposes:
- to ensure consistency in the development and application of examining standards throughout the public school system and funded independent schools.
- to provide limited assurance to the ministry that teachers are addressing many of the prescribed learning outcomes in their instruction.
The ministry admits that there may be some difficulty in ensuring that "standards are developed and applied in a consistent manner." It says, "since letter grade standards are set for each exam session, and are impacted by the composition of the student population (italics mine), the branch may never be able to demonstrate that standards are consistent over time or show that Grade 12 exams have improved public confidence in the school system."
Each year, B.C. uses the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) and some districts use the Canadian Achievement Tests (CAT) to give teachers, schools, school districts, and the province some measure of how students stack up to some perceived norm. If the tests were used solely to give interested parties some idea as to what level their students are performing, perhaps they are of some use and may help the teacher reflect on his/her curriculum presentation. When the scores of the tests appear in provincial and local newspapers, the intent of the testing comes under suspicion. What purpose does making the scores public have, other than implying rankings and overt competition among teachers, schools, and districts? The suspicion becomes evident when the Fraser Institute issues press releases ranking schools according to the results achieved on the B.C. Government Grade 12 exams. Is B.C. immune to the criticisms presented by many published articles that condemn standardized testing? Does B.C. endorse a free and open public educational system, or is B.C. content with having an educational system that is driven by norm-referenced testing? The educational stakeholders of B.C. should ask whether they want educational standards to be based on the thinking of Edward Thorndike, 1874-1949: "Whatever exists, exists in some amount; to measure it is simply to know its varying amounts." Or would they rather base educational standards on the theory of Albert Einstein, 1879-1955: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
Norm-referenced tests only produce rankings, not what students really know or what they can demonstrate they know. They only measure which child knows more. If test scores must be published, then, in the words of the venerable
W. James Popham (professor emeritus, Stanford University), put them in the proper section of the newspaper: The Sports Page.
Ray Shindell, a retired teacher, is an education doctoral student at University of Victoria.