So where is the good news for NS schools?

Ok, so I admit it. I am against large-scale standardized testing. I have been for a long time. I see the process as a fruitless pursuit of information that serves only corporate and political interests. The tests do nothing to improve the education system for our children,  they narrow curriculum to what is tested, they cost money that we can ill afford and they have been shown time and time again to have an inherent tendency to favour kids in the upper socioeconomic strata of our schools.

There. I’ve said it.

Now, this view does not come from out of nowhere. I understand standardization and actually used to be a huge proponent of it in my younger educational days. I spent several years trying to get the Eskasoni High School involved in the writing of the Nova Scotia Provincial English exam, and eventually succeeded in doing so. For a number of years, I was one of hundreds of teacher markers who got together in Halifax each summer and marked the grade 12 English exams. Eventually, I sat on the actual committee of teachers who chose the items for and created the questions for those same exams.

I do not consider myself an expert, nor should anyone else, for that matter. But when it comes to standardized tests, I feel I can safely say that I get the point.

That is why, when I was asked a few days ago if I would give an interview to a local radio station on the results of the latest Pan-Canadian education assessment tests (PCAP),  I gladly agreed. At that point, I hadn’t seen the results (a side effect of being a working school teacher) but felt I had enough experience to weigh in. I also have been pretty vocal about my objections to standardization, so knew where I stood on that issue, but felt I should at least have a look at the results and the PCAP itself before I spoke. So, late on Tuesday night, I sat down with a cup of tea and my computer and set out to examine the results.

First, I felt I needed to know what PCAP measured, and fairly quickly was able to get the basics. PCAP is a test that is delivered nationally every three years and tests students ability in reading, science and math. This year, the major domain was science, and the test looked at three areas (known as competencies) in particular; science inquiry, problem solving, and scientific reasoning. The test was further broken down into four sub categories; nature of science, life science, physical science, and Earth science. Now, there were sections of the test that measured English and math, but they were considered “minor domains” this time round. In the words of the test makers themselves Caution must be used when analyzing the data for minor domains”.

Ok, so this is a Science test. Got it.

With a fairly good grasp of the basics, I turned to the data, and was pleased to find that Nova Scotia had actually done respectably well. The PCAP people had set the Canadian average at a score of 500, and we had scored 492. Not surprisingly, size considering, Alberta and Ontario had “outscored” us by a healthy margin, but the race for bronze had been close. BC beat us by 9 percentage points, and Newfoundland and Labrador by 8. PEI was only one point behind us, so in a close race, we finished 5th. Not bad for a small have not.

When I looked deeper into the tests, there was more good news. In the sub category of physical science, we were virtually tied for third place with BC, one of “The Big Three” when it comes to national standardization tests. In Earth science, we actually beat out BC, (again behind Ontario and Alberta), but had our thunder stolen by upstarts PEI and Newfoundland. When it came to Nature of Science, we were again in a virtual tie for 4th place, behind the big three, but were edged out again by Newfoundland. In the final category, Life Science, we were placed 6th, losing 5th spot to Saskatchewan by inches.

Finally, when I looked at the expectations of the PCAP people, I toasted our science teachers with my late night tea-cup. The PCAP had set a score of 500 as the expectation for Canada in these sub categories, and we had scored numbers like 497 in physical science, and 498 in Earth science. Nature of science and life science were 490 and 492 respectively. Finally, PCAP, is scored on a 4 point scale, and the test creators have determined that to be meeting National standards, “students should be at level 2 or above”. 91% of Nova Scotia students reached that benchmark. For comparison sake, Alberta, with all their money and a population of 4 million people, saw 93% of their students do the same thing. Ontario hit 94%, and BC was tied with us at 91%.

So, in short, Nova Scotia held their own against the big three, and if we removed them from the mix, Nova Scotia basically kicked some nationally standardized backside.

It was getting late by this point, but I felt it might be worthwhile, in preparation for my interview, to have a quick look around to see what other folks were saying about these scores. I was excited. Although against standardization, it was kind of nice to see how well we had done. I was also hoping, (perhaps with a bit too much anticipation, I admit), to see at least some egg on the faces of those in our province who seem to be unable to find anything good in our education system.

I should have known better.

The first headline I found read  “Latest education assessment shows Nova Scotia students heading to ‘new, lower plateau.'”

Lower plateau?

The next one I found: “N.S. students doing better in math but not up to national average”.

Math? We all know this was a science test, right?

“Middling results for Nova Scotia Grade 8 students on Canada-wide test.”

Middling? How is having 91% of our students reach a National benchmark “middling”?

Everyone was pretty concerned, you see, because of where we had placed in math and reading. That was the story. Math and reading. The minor domains of this round of PCAP which the test makers themselves published with the warning “Caution must be used when analyzing the data…”.

No headlines about how well we had done in Science. No accolades for our students’ ability in physical science. No recognition that the teachers in Nova Scotia had managed to get 91% of their students to reach a National benchmark. Nope. It was all about how the data showed we were doing poorly in reading and math, two areas of data the test makers themselves specifically warned required caution before analysis.

I closed down my laptop and went to bed.

I am against large-scale standardized tests. I have been for a long time. I see them as a fruitless pursuit of information that serve only corporate and political interests and do nothing to improve the education system for our children.

If you believe I am wrong, see above.

In 2015, Nova Scotia will once again be involved in another mass assessment. This is when we will next participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing cycle. Interestingly enough, the major domain in 2015 will be Science. And if the response to this round of PCAP testing is any indication, I am again unsure as to why we are spending the time or the money.

Because here in Nova Scotia, the tests do not appear to matter, after all. The story, it seems, will always remain the same, regardless of the results.



Filed under assessment, Education Policy, Educational Change, PISA, Public education, Quality education, Uncategorized

5 responses to “So where is the good news for NS schools?

  1. Shelley

    Sadly, it is always seems easier to criticize and sensationalize the title of an article than give credit where credit is due! I, too, have no use for standardized tests as they are only good for identifying whether students come from poverty or affluence. What we need to know is what our students can do, not what they can’t do. Teachers use authentic assessment practices to determine both.

  2. Wade

    Thanks for the late night research, Grant. It truly is helpful when someone takes the time to seek the truth before making comment. I, too, have always asked the question around standardized testing, “for what purpose?” As it pertains to the students, what do we then do with said results? I’ve seen time and time again, such testing on our students with little to no plan to support those who fall below what might be expected. Is it not unethical to administer such tests and not have a plan to support: remedial or even a discuss with the student as to what the test and the results mean – to them?

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