Well, here we go again.
Last week the Nova Scotia airwaves were awash with yet another episode of “The sky is falling” rhetoric around plummeting test scores and failing schools.
The hubbub centered around the latest provincial student assessment results which were our first glimpse into what has been a widely anticipated slump in test scores due to COVID-19. Aligning with predictions, students’ Math scores were down between 2 to 8 percent from where they were pre-COVID, and scores in reading and writing were down between 1 and 5 percent.
Leading the charge (and sounding a bit Chicken Little-esque) was local media darling, Paul Bennett. Claiming that Nova Scotia is on a “downward test-score spiral”, Bennett suggested the solution is to create an independent student assessment agency that would oversee the provincial exam process. In a recent interview with CTV, he said “It’s not right that the results generated by our provincial test are reported by the same agency that authorizes them. There’s no accountability whatsoever, there’s some transparency but no accountability”.
So, creating another level of educational governance, housed somewhere in the bowels of the DoEECD, staffed by well paid bureaucrats and funded from our already stretched educational budget is how we should react to a slight drop in provincial test scores, undoubtedly caused by a once in a century pandemic?
Yeah, let’s get right on that.
Now, I’ve been a long standing opponent of large scale testing for many reasons, not the least of which is exactly this. Test scores appear, along comes chicken little, and the next thing you know we have a major policy change that truly does nothing of value except place more strain on the system.
If you want proof of this, you only need look at the last few years of educational policy in Nova Scotia. Anyone remember Avis Glaze? She too used standardized test scores to justify changes that she said would solve all our educational problems. “Test scores are dropping so let’s abolish school boards” was her line. The logic of that thinking escaped many of us, as did her promise that doing things like pulling principals out of the NSTU would somehow improve educational outcomes for students.
Whether there were actually any problems in education at the time or whether this was simply a Stephen McNeil vendetta against teachers for daring to stand up to him is a matter of some debate. (Well not really, but I am trying to be balanced.) The point, however, is that Glaze said our test results were bad, (they weren’t, by the way) and we embarked on a major and painful overhaul of the education system which was supposed to solve all our educational woes.
I guess that one goes down as a swing and a miss.
For her part, Education Minister Becky Druhan has been a bit more balanced. In response to the scores, Druhan promised that some new supports are already on the way, pointing to recent changes in reading instruction and new math software for students. The minister also expressed how the province is going to continue to focus on recruiting and retaining teachers to help improve results.
At the end of the day there was more good news in these results than bad. For example, one common criticism of standardized tests is that the more kids take them, the better they get at doing so. Undoubtedly, a portion of the decrease in scores this time around can be attributed to kids simply not knowing how to take the test.
We also have to take into consideration that we have an entire educational workforce that has been rocked by some major reforms over the past few years; reforms that have changed the the working dynamic of schools for many. Add the pandemic, throw in staffing woes, add a pinch or two of heightened levels of anxiety in students, throw in a major spike in absenteeism due to a host of issues, and a slight drop in math scores starts to look much less daunting.
Yes, our scores are down. But we knew this was coming. For my money, there are far more pressing issues facing us right now than an 8% drop in one of the many subjects we teach in our schools.
Chicken Little be damned.