Stormy weather for standardization may be on the horizon

Well, folks, we may be in for some rain.

Much as we here in Nova Scotia tend to get our weather from the West, so too do we often inherit educational practices and policies. Much of what we “create” in education here at home is borrowed from other jurisdictions, such as Alberta, BC and Saskatchewan. Although we do often get to put our own colloquial spin on things, many times the price we pay for being a have-not province is that we must clad ourselves, to the best of our ability, in the educational hand me downs of our more well to do cousins.

Now, I for one have always been against this trend. I hate the thinking among some policy makers that ideas must come from somewhere else to be any good. Our province is full of top-notch educators, right from the Department of Education on down,  and I often wish that we would tap that particular resource a bit more often to find educational leadership.  I recognize that there is a good case to be made for not re-inventing the wheel each time we would like to look at educational change, but I also recognize that, just like cars, not all educational systems are created equally. A wheel from a Chevy may never perfectly fit a Ford, no matter how much you hammer on it.

However, there currently is a rather interesting educational storm a brewin’ out across the prairies that has me, quite frankly, praying for rain.

It looks like Alberta has written the “No Zero” policy out of existence and is reducing the amount of standardized testing in public schools.

Now before those of us who dream of such occurrences go running through the fields shouting “Hallelujah!”, a word of caution. The Edmonton Public School trustees have not completed reviewing their policy on “student assessment, achievement and growth”, but the signs are good. Board chair Sarah Hoffman said in a statement released on April 10th that they were pleased with  proposed changes, which reportedly may include allowing teachers to give students a zero for non-submitted work and removing the grade three provincial assessment.

Certainly not everyone is pleased. Some folks, in fact, are down right grumpy. In a recent article in the Edmonton Journal, writer David Staples decries the idea, stating that abandoning these tests will “leave parents in the dark”. He worries that without parents being able to see these test scores and compare them to the provincial norms, parents will be unable to see how their student is actually “doing”. They might even be robbed of the ability to pull their kids out of schools that are underperforming (collective gasps of horror abound).

Well sir, let me tip back my straw hat for a second and tell you a few of my thoughts on that.

You see, there are several issues with standardized tests, not the least of which is the nasty effect they have on programming. They force schools and teachers to focus on that certain aspect of the curriculum which is to be tested. For example, if it is revealed that 80 percent of this year’s math test will be looking at long division, there is a huge amount of pressure on boards, principals and teachers to make sure the kids can do long division. All that extra focus  is probably going  to cost you in double-digit multiplication.

And what if, as Staples suggests, parents start making decisions on where to send their kids based on these results? The school with the higher mark may not be any better at anything, other than, presumably, teaching long division. But once the trend starts, the school with the more rounded education actually gets labelled as a bad school, and kids are pulled out in droves.

You want to know how a school is doing? Visit it. Ask the kids. Talk to the teachers. Go to the school concert. Attend the musical. Volunteer. The measure of excellence in schools should not be what the students score on a test, but on the quality of overall education being offered within its walls. It is excellence in innovation, in creative thinking, in creativity which we must strive for, not patterning and practice. It is an excellence that can not be measured. It can not be counted. It can not be put into a chart to be displayed behind some crooning politician.

Belief in that form of excellence, true excellence, in education, must come from faith in the system.

I am not sure if we will ever see the death of standardization. But as I metaphorically  sit on my back porch and look out over educational fields, parched of creative teaching practices by years of data collection, I believe that maybe, just maybe, we might be in for some rain.

And to my mind, that particular storm from the West can not arrive soon enough.



Filed under Educational Change, Public education, Standards, Teacher autonomy

4 responses to “Stormy weather for standardization may be on the horizon

  1. Right on! Whether or not it’s because we started our careers at roughly the same time, I believe we share similar beliefs around education. I enjoy reading your blog.

  2. Hugh d'Entremont

    We have sacrificed so much in pursuit of the most recent fad in education, often a failed American initiative or the latest idea hot from an educational publisher.

    As an old, new teacher, I watch in amazement as colleagues try to fit the creativity and imagination into the tight little boxes prescribed by the curriculum outcomes and needed to show, based solely on test results, that their school is one of the good ones.

    What many people don’t realize about the standardized test is that they measure the ability to teach to the test. We can all tutor and coach students to do well on a test but the test does not cover the skills most employers and life require.

    If we want citizens who can think critically, write with precision and clarity, problem solve, read for comprehension, work independently, be organized and responsible we should teach those things.

    We need to look elsewhere to find inspiration for our needed education reform.

  3. I agree with the misguided focus on standardization. It doesn’t necessarily have to be eliminated all together. In some countries, outside of the US and Canada, a sample of around 10% is tested to ensure relatively up-to-date practices, which would save us money critically needed to make sure we do have enough teachers and support staff. We can’t keep pushing kids along and expecting them to do well in the real world. As in most professions, autonomy is critical to unleashing the teacher itself and allowing them to tap into unknown talents in their students. Good article, I look forward to more.

  4. Although I appreciate that there may be some use for testing a sample group, I have to admit I’d like to see all such tests tossed out the window. Tests can only measure what is on the test, and they can only serve to narrow educational focus.

    Thanks all for your comments!

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