Why I somewhat agree with ETFO’s negative position on standardized testing

Pencil on school test. Click for Peter Greene's article on Huff Post.
Pencil on school test. Click for Peter Greene’s article on Huff Post.

Who benefits the most from standardized testing? Certainly, in Ontario, the EQAO agency which conducts the testing benefits to the tune of millions and millions of taxpayer dollars a year. Another beneficiary is the Fraser Institute that provides annual “reports” on how schools rank. As well, some schools and municipalities benefit when schools in their areas have averages that are higher than the norm — resulting in some parents actually relocating to those communities.

However, contrary to the Fraser Institute’s “key academic indicators of school performance” (on page 5 in the above link), their reports are empty of specifics. Here, for example is what some of those so-called indicators look like.

1. average level of achievement on the grade- 3 EQAO assessment in reading
2. average level of achievement on the grade- 3 EQAO assessment in writing; and
3. average level of achievement on the grade- 3 EQAO assessment in mathematics.

Now, exactly where are the “academic” or “learning objectives” in the indicators? Do the test results indicate, for example, that students were able to identify words in text — which is the first “fluency” phase of reading? Or, in terms of comprehension, do the test results prove that students in Grade 3 were able to identify the main idea in a paragraph? Or, in the average level of achievement in math, were the Grade 3’s able to add and subtract in three columns?

In other words, while the Fraser Institute’s Report indicates there are four standards used by EQAO (e.g., levels one to four), their indicators actually indicate nothing.

There is so much more to a school than cold, static, standardized test results. There are academic subjects such as social studies, history and science. There is also phys ed and extra-curricular activities, such as chess clubs, bands, art clubs, basketball, volleyball and baseball. In all those instances, children are learning new things, as well as how to get along with others and how to cope in the world.

Plus, let’s not forget there are opportunities for parents to volunteer and get to know their child’s teachers and what goes on in their child’s school day to day.

I frequently hear non-teachers talking about the entitlement attitude of today’s teachers. That too bothers me and I say so regularly. However, how many parents, in the midst of such complaining, will also tell you that they like and appreciate their own children’s teachers?

In the U.S., under President Obama, teachers have been fired for low standardized test results that measure so little of what students are actually learning. As Peter Greene says in his Huff Post column: “What about identifying schools that need help? Is the data used to help those schools? Not unless by ‘help’ you mean ‘close’ or ‘take over’ or ‘strip of resources so students can go to a charter instead.’ Our [the U.S.] current system does not identify schools for help; it identifies schools for punishment.”

Anyway, check out this video and list of reasons the Ontario elementary teachers union (ETFO) recommends a random sampling approach, as opposed to 100% standardized participation in the various grades affected. It is why I somewhat agree with their complaints about EQAO standardized testing. There really are other methods of evaluation that would be more helpful to parents.

A “balanced” standardized testing approach is a good thing

Update 5pm Friday, October 21, 2011: I just got a Google Alert to this Christian Science Monitor breaking news item that the United States Senate voted this afternoon to drop the provision in the No Child Left Behind law that required annual standardized testing improvements.  That is a huge victory for all those who have seen the damage that the provision did to everyone involved in public education — state officials, school administrators, teachers and students. So, just as I agreed with Michael Zwaagstra’s views below, there will now be a chance for the U.S. to have a balanced approach between standardized testing in reading and math and the rest of the curriculum. My guess is the cheating will now stop as well!

Here also is the same announcement via the New York Times.

[…]

According to Michael Zwaagstra at Troy Media,   a balanced approach to standardized testing is a good thing.  Zwaagstra, a research fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Manitoba high school teacher and the author of “What’s wrong with our schools and how we can fix them,” seems very balanced in his analysis as well. As such, as a former teacher myself (and retired teacher educator), for the most part I agree with what he has written.

However, the key word is “balanced.” From what I am reading is happening in the United States, what Obama’s Department of Education is insisting on is anything but balanced. Rather, they are stressing the importance of annual test results to such an extent that some states are asking for exemptions, while others are busy firing teachers. In fact, with the number of teachers being fired and others quitting, the U.S. is going to have a major teacher shortage in the not too distant future.  

No doubt, that is what concerns Canada’s teachers’ unions and teachers themselves. Could that type of extremism, in a drip by drip approach, become the norm in Canada as well? I would say not as long as Canadian parents and lawmakers are kept aware of what balanced means.

The bottom line is that some form of standardized testing is absolutely essential for accountability and to provide benchmarks on academic achievement, particularly in reading and math. However, that said, while those objective measures of performance are important, so are all the other things that go on in our schools — our music, our visual art, our athletics, our class trips, our debates, our spelling bees and our speech contests.

In other words, acknowledging all those aspects of learning and schooling is what a well-rounded education looks like — in preparation for a job and real life. Because, remember, jobs in real life are not just about the specific skills and knowledge required, be they engineering, law, carpentry or plumbing. Certainly, those components are crucial. But, and this is the big but, there is also the equally important ability to get along with other people, be they co-workers or customers, as well as to be able to problem-solve and think creatively. You don’t get those skills through teaching to the test.

So, yes, the crux of the matter is that a “balanced” standardized testing approach can be a good thing.

EQAO & issue of cheating re standardized tests

There were allegations that a principal with the Thames Valley District School Board (London, Ontario) unfairly opened an Ontario’s Education & Quality Accountability Office (EQAO) standardized testing package ahead of time so that teachers could prepare students.  To read about the whole issue and the outcome of the investigation, check out Hugo’s blog at The Education Reporter

Now, Hugo does a very good job of explaining the ifs, ands and buts of the allegations, along with providing highlights from the report of an investigation into the incident. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to call what happened “cheating.” Breaking EQAO rules perhaps, but not cheating. I say that carefully because not letting teachers know what a testing package is about is going against everything I have ever learned about how to teach kids — and that is to always review curriculum content and demonstrate skills before a test.   

In my opinion then, this is a power struggle between EQAO and the professionals in the system. You will do as EQAO says or else you will be punished by your school board — maybe even be fired. Isn’t it, in fact, cheating the students when teachers have to completely ignore their pleas and questions during the time they are completing the EQAO tests. Some students, let’s not forget, are only 8 years old and in Grade 3 and don’t yet have abstract reasoning skills.

So, while I agree with the concept of standardized testing, I would recommend that EQAO ease the rules to allow teachers to better prepare their students — which will help reduce the stress for everyone involved. Otherwise, the testing process, in Ontario at least, is not really about finding out how well our children are performing, or how well individual schools are performing in relation to others, but how well they are at test taking.

Which begs the question: Would advance preparation be considered simply “teaching to the test?” And, if so, what would be wrong with that? In my view, nothing, as long as the preparation time was short because, after all is said and done, the validity of the tests would still be there given it is individual children who complete them.  

Something to think about.

“Gifted” BC high school students tops on Advanced Placement test

Coming on the heels of the OECD International Tests on reading, mathematics and science last week, the fact that some BC high schools students continue to be the best in North America when it comes to completing the pre-university assessment — called the “Advanced Placement” (AP) — is a positive outcome. It is particularly positive  for those students who are considered “bright” or “gifted” because it challenges them to stretch. Janet Steffenhagen of the Vancouver Sun writes that:

“The province’s top high-school students ranked among the best in the world in another international competition, the results of which were released today. B.C. students who take university courses while attending high school had the best scores in North America in the latest Advanced Placement (AP) College Board assessment, Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid says in a release. ‘For six years, our students taking university courses in secondary school have consistently performed at a world class level,’ she states.”

 

Endnote: I included “gifted” in the title of this news post because, in my opinion, only students with above-average abilities would be able to, or want to, complete university courses in high school. What reminded me of that fact was Paul Bennett’s recent post on why schools stigmatized gifted children. Check out the comments on that EduChatter thread as well, as they provide an excellent picture of what challenges parents of bright and gifted children face.

Are 1 in 6 Canadians illiterate or 10th best readers in the world?

During the last year, we have been given conflicting information about how well Canadians can read. First to be released, in May of 2010, was a Statistics Canada report that claimed 1 in 6 Canadians were functionally illiterate or 14.6% of the 42% who were considered semi-illiterate.  For specific information on those statistics, read this CBC story. It is titled “Canada’s Shame” and is clearly an attempt to justify increasing funding and programs for adults with literacy difficulties.

Now, I am all for helping people who need it. I operated my own private reading clinic for a decade or more to do just that.  But, something is wrong when StatsCan has to use twelve-year-old numbers to make their case. Here, for example, is how the joint StatsCan, IALS (OECD’s International Adult Literacy Survey) study is explained — that the first round of IALS surveys were conducted in 1995, followed by second and third rounds in 1996 and 1998, with the final report pertaining to 23 countries or regions being released in 2000.

So, given how out of date that data was, why was it released in 2010? And, why was it discussed in the absence of other studies — particularly since both studies involved the OECD and data pertaining to the the studies on the reading competency of fifteen-year-olds was already available for 2000, 2003 and 2006? And, just last week, the 2009 OECD’s school-based international test scores in reading were released (December, 2010). Involving 70 countries, that report found that Canadian youth ranked tenth overall for reading, having slipped from 7th overall three years ago in 2006.

Now, here is the Canadian dilemma: Given the latest OECD school-based reading tests and the explanation in the CBC column, how can we have 42% of our population semi-illiterate while our high school graduates are performing well above the norm. I mean, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t be drowning in illiteracy while our kids are excelling.

So, which is it?

OECD tests indicate Canada is slipping in academic subjects

As Shannon Proudfoot reported yesterday in the National Post, in just three years, Canada has lost ground on the OECD’s (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) international Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test scores in reading, mathematics and science — going from 7th place in 2006 to 10th place in 2009. Yet, given the latest spin coming out of the Ontario government (which I received via e-mail), you’d never guess that, as a country, we had actually lost ground.

So, I decided to see if the Ontario government had a reason to brag. Well, it seems they (we) do. For example, this Globe and Mail graph on reading scores, shows that the Province of Alberta led the country in 2000, followed by B.C., Quebec and Ontario in fourth place.  However, in 2009, those rankings have changed somewhat with Alberta and Ontario neck and neck for first place, followed by B.C. and Quebec in second and third place as before.

That said, Canada’s overall rankings have still slipped, a fact that would suggest one of two possibilities. Either we are losing ground because our fifteen-year old students are not doing as well or fifteen-year-old students in other countries are doing better. Given some of the reportage on this Google search page, it would seem that the reasons are a little bit of both, particularly given the fact that some provincial results in reading are dragging down Canada’s overall ranking. Here also is what Moira MacDonald of the Toronto Sun writes on this topic.

In any event,  since the rankings are obviously available from many media sources, I decided to write this post for another reason and that was to look at the implicit left-right split in the results and the objective versus subjective nature for some findings.

For example, in terms of left-right, check out this country-by-country chart from the OECD website. What you will immediately notice is that the top five are Asian countries, including Shanghai-China, Singapore and South Korea.

What is interesting is that those countries are homogeneous societies and reflect the traditional values of the “right” — even if they are officially communist — such as valuing hard work and the importance of education. However, in other countries that are solidly multicultural, like Canada for instance, it is interesting to note that Proudfoot included Canada’s ranking in terms of equity policies — usually perceived as “left” wing policies.

In other words, for Canadians, it is not enough for us to simply be good at reading, mathematics and science. We also have to be good regardless of the socio-economic status of a student’s family — something that is likely more of an accomplishment than the overall scores themselves. For example, as Proudfoot wrote:

“Across OECD member countries, an average of 14% of student achievement can be attributed to socioeconomic status, but in Canada that variation is just 8.6% based on reading scores, putting Canada in fourth place.” [My highlighting.]

However, while these philosophical issues and inter-provincial comparisons are interesting, they shouldn’t cloud the reality that, as a whole country, students near high school graduation are not scoring as high as they once did. Meaning, those provincial and territorial jurisdictions pulling Canada’s overall scores down had better look into why their school systems are not doing as well as they could, particularly in terms of reading skills.

Update December 13th, 2010:

Check out Paul Bennett’s blog “EduChatter.” He has an excellent analysis of these OECD test results.

School standardized testing about accountability, not fairness

It seems that most, if not all, principals, teachers and teachers’ unions hate school-based standardized testing. Why? Well, according to Ian Gillespie’s column in the London Free Press on November 24th (H/T Catherine), it’s because the tests are costly to administer, stressful for the students and unfair to teachers.

Too costly? Unfair to teachers? How? Do they not indicate how well students can perform certain tasks? Do they not indicate whether or not students have all the skills they need to read and calculate? Yes? Well then, if that is the case, they are neither too costly or unfair. 

However, that said, the problem seems to be that teachers as a group do not want to be held responsible for what a child learns. They also don’t like the competition that results from ranking schools. Which may not be fair, but which is, after-all, what public accountability is all about!

Now, I have some sympathy having been on the front lines for more than a dozen years. I mean, you can’t simply open up a child’s head and dump in the learning. They have to be willing to be active participants in their own learning. However, if teaching practice research over the past fifty years has shown us anything, it is that the way a teacher teaches influences the way children participate — and yes, learn. So, it’s a two-way street.

However, teachers don’t like to have that responsibility. Thus, the likely reason they think standardized tests are unfair is because they are not only exposing how well a specific class is performing, by default, they are also showing how well a teacher is teaching — and, let’s not forget, given how parents use school rankings,  how well an entire school is doing .

Then, there is the endless cry that if students do badly they are maimed for life because their self-esteem is crushed. Hogwash! Absolute nonsense. Life if about stress. Life is about succeeding and failing. I mean, that is how we learn, by screwing up and learning from our mistakes.

Which is why I am so against “success” policies that are nothing more than “no-fail” policies or social promotion policies that push kids through from one grade to the next before they are ready. Short sighted hardly begins to describe the current ideology in most school boards in Canada and the U.S.

Well, this type of philosophy has to change. It has to change because the standardized testing results we do have, in Canada at least, indicate the results are abysmal. Meaning, that far too many of today’s high school graduates are not ready for college, university or an apprenticeship, in terms of the skills they will need to complete qualifying tests.

Need proof? Here is a section from Gillespie’s column with quotes from Jim Cote, a sociologist at the University of Western Ontario and one of the authors of the Ivory Tower Blues (a blog that has been on my favourites list for some time).

“‘The low-achieving students obviously need some remediation. I mean, isn’t that the point?’ says Cote, a professor in the University of Western Ontario’s sociology department and co-author of Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis. ‘The intention is not to be punitive. The intention is to bring up everybody’s standards.’ And those standards, he says, are abysmal. A survey of nearly 2,000 faculty and librarians from 22 Ontario universities released last year reported first-year students frequently displayed a lack of required writing, math and critical thinking skills, poor research abilities and an expectation of success without the requisite effort.

All these problems,’ says Cote, stem back to the 1960s when department exams were abolished and grades began to be routinely inflated to boost overall averages. ‘Grade inflation is really messing up the system,’ says Cote, whose new book on the topic (Lowering Higher Education, co-written with Anton Allahar) is due out in a few months. ‘We’re getting people coming to university who are really not prepared. They’ve been given totally false feedback.’

Cote says making a student feel better about their abilities avoids the real problems revealed by the tests. ‘You’re really doing (students) harm because they’ll eventually hit the wall and do a major fail, and that’s not good for self-esteem,’ he says, adding testing helps students prepare for the stresses of life. ‘If there are problems, let’s deal with these problems: Identify those (students) who are weak and who need remediation, and get them help early. But don’t pass them on to universities and expect us to do it, because it’s too late.'” [My highlighting.]

Students have “been given totally false feedback.” Cote is right on! When I was teaching university, undergraduate students — who were training to be teachers — would show up in my office asking me to change their marks. Why? Because they inevitably thought their mark was too low and that they deserved an “A” because they had, quote: “worked hard.”

When I would explain that, since I had no idea how hard anyone had worked, I had to base my mark totally on what they handed in, they seemed puzzled. Yes, I would explain, I gave marks for grammar, spelling and presentation of sources and footnotes, but that an “A” was only ever given, not only for a near-perfect presentation, but for a well argued and exceptional argument and defence.

In other words, students need to be taught what accountability means, what an “A” means. As such, school standardized testing should be here to stay, in fact increased to include more grade levels.  Yes, it is about public accountability, but more than that, it is about students learning that they too are accountable for their own success or failure.

And so, the crux of the matter is that it should NOT be considered unfair to students, teachers or the teachers’ unions that our provincial governments insist on having standardized testing.