This spring, while acting as Education critic for the then-Opposition Liberal party, Hon. Carolyn Bertram had this to say about the province’s so-called “common assessments” program (that is a code-word for standardized testing):
There’s testing that goes on to students every day in the classroom. Teachers test every day, but yet this government wants to spend three-quarters of a million dollars testing on a common assessment across this province. Every child learns differently and we can’t fit them all in the same box, and that’s what we believe in this side, on the opposition. We believe in each child, the whole child.
My question is this: Why are we spending three-quarters of a million dollars when you could be investing this money into frontline services into the classroom, more educational assistance, more teachers, more speech language pathologists? Three-quarters of a million dollars is a lot of money. Why common assessments, Madam Minister?
Hon. Ms. Bertram, a teacher herself, echoed my feelings exactly on this subject. My son Oliver has been in public school since September of last year, and if there’s anything I’ve learned from the experience it’s that, especially when compared to my own elementary schooling in the 1970s, the classroom is now indeed based on the notion that every child learns differently.
Teachers, principals and support staff live this out every day, and if you had been there when we sat down for two hours with everyone at Prince Street School involved with Oliver’s schooling at last fall’s parent-teacher interviews you would have seen this fact born out in ways that would amaze you: these folks know their stuff, they know my son, and they are, more than I thought possible, individualizing his (and every other child’s) education to learning style and skills.
The notion that we can somehow glean something useful from a province-wide multiple choice questionnaire about Bobby’s Big Toe, an “assessment” that distills the uniqueness of every child down into a set of statistics like “62 per cent of the students who wrote the assessment achieved the standard in reading,” is absurd. By the time the numbers are abstracted to a level there they can be used for policy-making they are so removed from the “whole child” that we might as well assume we’re teaching identical robot children who need a software upgrade to do better.
In other words, I, like Hon. Ms Bertram, think that common assessments are a waste of time and money.
But I also think they’re dangerous in another way: despite the suggestion that the role of the tests is to provide teachers “with the time and opportunity to study in-depth curriculum documents and to gain a better understanding of the expected outcomes,” they will ultimately be used, if not by educators then by the public, to rate and compare schools and teachers.
If your kid’s school scored “57 percent” and the one across town scored “75 percent,” what parent in their right mind wouldn’t start to wonder if they’re sending their kid to the wrong school. And if Ms. X’s grade 3 class did better than Mr. Y’s grade 3 class on the writing test, which class do you think the grade 2 parents are going to be angling for their kids to get into next year?
All of which happens to set aside completely the notion that “we can’t fit them all in the same box,” and that the ability to score well on Bobby’s Big Toe interpretation may in fact have nothing to say at all about the quality of instruction in a particular class or particular school.
It’s not that I think that all teachers and all schools are created equal, it’s just that I think that common assessments are a primitive tool to make judgments about them with.
Presumably this particular genie in this particular bottle was something that the Task Force on Student Achievement, the body that gave rise to the standardized tests in the first place, had in mind when they said:
Student Assessment … must not be used to for the ranking or comparison of either students or schools.
That’s all very well and good to suggest, but also extremely naive, as once the numbers exist, it’s inevitable that they’ll be used in this manner eventually.
All of this became very tangible to me last fall when, on a balmy Sunday morning, I found myself at a coffee shop in downtown Charlottetown eating breakfast at a table around the corner from a group of senior education bureaucrats who were discussing the results of the assessments. They were, I sensed, freaked out by what they’d found, and afraid of what was going to happen when word got out about how poor the results were.
Of course by the time a summary of the results was released later in the fall, the freaking out had been replaced by calm eduspeak.
Presumably because of the desire to avoid school and teacher ranking, the release of the results only included province-wide data.
Now you may think that, as someone who thinks common assessments are both a waste of time and money, and also a dangerous genie in a bottle, I would applaud this decision. But I don’t. The only thing worse than a genie locked up in a bottle is a genie that’s unlocked for some and not for others. I know that politicians, administrators, principals, and teachers have access to school-by-school data, and I know that, even with all the good intentions in the world, they are making, if not formal policy decisions, at least value judgments about schools and teachers based on the results.
I want to know what they know. And I want everyone to have access to this information so that, absurd and meaningless though it may be, we all have the raw data in front of us. Furthermore, I want those responsible for the common assessments to be forced to explain, when the data is available to everyone, why it shouldn’t be used to rank and compare schools (thus perhaps exposing, in some small way, it’s absurdity and lack of meaning).
And so, in early November, I asked for it.
And I was told that I couldn’t have it — as I expected because, to quote from the email I received, “The Department does not plan to release those results following the recommendation of the Task Force on Student Achievement to not rank or compare schools.”
And so I asked again, this time as a formal Freedom of Information request (what is FOIPP legislation for if not to put all of us, citizens and public servants, on the same data playing field?). Here’s what I asked for:
On October 25, 2007 the Minister of Education tabled the provincial results of “common assessments” conducted on Grade 3 students. In the public news release that accompanied the tabling, only provincial aggregate data was provided. I would like an electronic copy (spreadsheet, database, text file) of the results on a school-by-school basis, for the “Grade 3 Writing” and “Grade 3 Reading” common assessments, for every school on PEI where the common assessments were conducted.
Thirty days later I received this letter:
While my request was denied, it was denied because the Department, according to my math, plans to release the data on or before January 13, 2008 (10 days from now as I write). So in a couple of weeks I’m looking forward to receiving my digital data, data that I may very well mold into a handy (albeit meaningless and absurd) interactive mapping tool that will allow the very ranking and comparison that the assessors hope to avoid.
And I have every hope that the reaction to this will be a concerted effort by politicians and educators to reinforce how, to quote Hon. Ms. Bertram again, “[e]very child learns differently and we can’t fit them all in the same box” and “we believe in each child, the whole child.” Which is where our eyes should have been focused all along.