September is upon us, and I, like many of my teaching brethren, spent the final week of August gearing up for the upcoming school year. And this year, as I was unpacking a box of binders during my annual pre-September ritual, I came across a beautifully printed, colourful document which, if I am not mistaken, had been given to every teacher in the Province before their annual June exodus.
The first thought that crossed my mind when I saw its glossy goodness?
“Oh, right. That.”
I am referring, of course, to the Liberal Government’s Action Plan for Education 2015 the much touted and oft cited tome created by Minister Karen Casey to, well, renew, refocus and rebuild the education system in Nova Scotia. The plan, (which the Minister proudly boasts was developed after “…tremendous input and insight from thousands of Nova Scotians.”), is based on four key areas, which the Minister likes to refer to as “pillars”. They are 1) A modern education system, 2) An innovative curriculum, 3) Inclusive school environments and 4) Excellence in teaching.
Now, in the name of full disclosure, I am of the “exception since inception” camp as far as this one goes. I have raised concerns about everything from the make up of the Minister’s education panel to the final report itself and most things in between. And it is not that I am anti-change; in fact, quite the opposite is true. But even the most optimistic of us must have some concerns when governmental action plans are set in motion based on a public opinion survey that was completed by about 2% of the population.
However, as I re-read the report, I was struck again by the unequivocal clarity with which of the Provincial Liberals state their convictions. They feel, quite clearly, that the Nova Scotia public education system is failing our kids.
In the introduction to the document, the Minister writes “Time and again, test results show our students are falling behind in math and literacy…Over the years, there have been several different reports…that reached similar conclusions.” This opinion is restated a page or two later: “It is an unfortunate, accepted truth that we have fallen behind in educating our children…and they have fallen behind their peers…On national and international tests…Nova Scotia students generally perform lower than their peers…on recent provincial assessments…student performance is generally declining”.
Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Declining performance, falling test scores. Seems like we are in a heap of hurt as far as education goes in this province, particularly when you hear about our sub-par results on large-scale assessment tools like the PISA and the PCAP. It seems that we have not been doing a particularly good job of educating our kids.
Well, before we declare the Nova Scotia Public education system a complete failure prior to the Liberals coming to power, it might be wise to consider a few alternate perspectives.
First, let’s look at the PISA 2012 results. Much was certainly made in the media about Nova Scotia’s average score, 497, which was below the Canadian average of 518, and had us placing us 4th from the bottom in National rankings. However, when looking at the OECD expectation for reaching “…the level of mathematical proficiency that is required to participate fully in modern society” a full 82% of our kids met the mark. Top performers Quebec and BC saw 89% and 88% of their students reach the same standard respectively.
Now, between 2003 and 2012, all Canadian jurisdictions, with the exception of Quebec, saw their PISA math scores slip. However Nova Scotia’s decline of 18 average points was less than PEI, Newfoundland, Manitoba and even perennial National PISA champion, Alberta over the same time period. (Ontario and BC saw a drop of 16 points each).
Finally, when it comes to the difference in scores between high achievers and low achievers in math, Nova Scotia had the smallest gap in the country in 2012. A smaller gap means a more equitable education system, and in that category, we were number one.
Then there are the PCAP results, another large scale assessment the Minister uses to bolster her argument that schools are failing. When the results of the PCAP were released in 2014, the big story was that Nova Scotia students were slipping in math and literacy. However, the last PCAP was focussed on science, not math or literacy. And as far as the science was concerned, Nova Scotia did very well, placing as high as 4th in the country within the tested categories.
Finally, the Minister talks about the Nova Scotia government’s own assessment of students, which is administered in grade 3, 4 and 6 in the areas of reading, writing and math. She talks about a downward trend in these scores from 2012 to 2014, but provincially, scores in grade 6 math, for example, were steady in 2012 and 2013, and only saw a 4 point decline in 2014.
Yet, despite all these signs that our education system is performing well, the verdict remains unchanged: Our schools are failing.
Now, I am not the Minister of Education, nor, do I imagine I ever will be. But as I read through report again and considered the implications the changes contained within it will have for teachers , a thought crossed my mind. If the quality of education in Nova Scotia is to be measured primarily by large-scale standardized assessment scores, then it might be time to say so.
It might be time for the government to come out and say that the single most important indicator of educational quality in Nova Scotia is the standardized test.
I mean, if the measure of how well we are preparing students for the future are results in assessment tools like PCAP and PISA, maybe its time to get serious about taking such tests. Let’s train teachers in large-scale assessment practices. Let’s narrow the curriculum to only deal with certain subjects. Let’s have students locked in gruelling, hours long study sessions in preparation. Let’s take more money out of the already strained budget and purchase practice tests and “how-to” books. Let’s forget about nourishing our kids through a well-rounded education. Forget about equity. Forget about mental health, and hunger and poverty and social justice altogether. Let’s spend the next few years agonizing about and stressing about and talking about and studying for PISA.
Then let’s write the damn thing.
I bet we knock it out of the park.
The real story here is how well Nova Scotia does in these tests considering that we do not focus on them. When PCAP and PISA are written in our schools, our students tend to not take them particularly seriously. Teachers, for the most part, do not concern themselves with them, and many see them as more of an inconvenience than anything else. Parents, as well, seem, at best, nonchalant, some even going so far as refusing to let their kids write the tests, which they see as a waste of educational time..
And yet, somehow, our students still manage to stack up pretty well.
Education is constantly changing, and I, for one, welcome that. As well, I certainly would much rather have a Minister of Education who was concerned about schools than one who was not. And, to her credit, there are some recommendations in the report that have merit, assuming they do not end up with “implementationitus”, as so many recommendations have before.
However, as we start this September off, I must take serious issue with the idea that Nova Scotia schools are failing our students. I would rather say that we are failing to buy into the hysteria of large-scale standardized tests, and the “my score is bigger than your score” mentality.
Or at least some of us are.