Province to Release School-by-School Test Data

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:

Letter in Response to my FOIPP request to the PEI Department of Education

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.


Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 4, 2008 - 00:07 Permalink

Nice rant and nice request. As the (only?) Alberta reader of the blog I have the opportunity to comment on what standardized testing and the release of this information has on schools here. For three years I lived in the town of Cold Lake. It consistently showed up as having the worst high school in the province, partly I have assumed due to the difficulty in getting teachers to stay for more than a year or two after graduation. In my opinion it seemed like a hopeless situation, there was no way for this town to ever feel proud about its education system, which had the commulative effect of making the students feel they were somehow inferior even if these results were only fractions of a percentage point lower than other schools — numbers don’t lie nor are they ambiguous.

I now also have a son in grade 1 in an inner city community in Calgary. The school here is the reverse. It is small 150 students spread over 6 grades with lots of parent involvement and extras (provided in part through revenue from parent run casinos a topic I’ve written about here before). I was at the parent council meeting two months ago when the grade three results were presented and showed that the school was as usual near the top of the pack in the province. We did not choose our neighbourhood based on the school and I am happy my son goes to a good school. That said I don’t need the test results to know that it is a good school. I also wonder what other parents think about it. If there were three things I could change about the Alberta education system they would be:

1. Ban casino fundraising
2. Remove standardized testing
3. Remove the American style voucher system which allows parents to opt out of the public system.

And there is my rant that I can’t give at parent council without making enemies.

Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on January 4, 2008 - 13:33 Permalink

Morning Peter
CBC announce that the results will be made public — largely due to access to Info requests!…
Good for you

What could standardization hur's picture
What could stan... on January 4, 2008 - 15:48 Permalink

We have standardized tests in University even though ‘everyone learns differently’ why not in ealrier grades?

Society NEEDS a measuring stick for everything..what can it possibly hurt? Possibly a teachers incompetence.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 4, 2008 - 15:49 Permalink

Any parent who is paying attention will know almost immediately whether or not their child’s teacher is incompetent.

Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 4, 2008 - 16:16 Permalink

Unfortunately standardized testing doesn’t mean standardized results sometime in the future instead it often means ghettoization.

What if parent is 'slow''s picture
What if parent ... on January 4, 2008 - 19:07 Permalink

Not every parent is as intuitive as the one’s espousing insighful teaching techniques above. Some parents are ‘slow’ and miss the subtleties of life, let aone their child’s education.

Something to think about…

For comparison sake — it’s in line with the idea that an inarticluate and unintelligent member of our society often does NOT receive a fair trial. Same applies to the ‘slow’ parent. They just don’t get it…

STANDARDIZED tests level the field for all. After all, equity is not such a bad thing when evenly applied and not ‘cherry picked’ by interest groups.

Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 4, 2008 - 19:21 Permalink

Do standardized tests really pick up the subtleties that truly matter in teaching/raising a child?

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 4, 2008 - 19:43 Permalink

You are right, “what if parent is slow” commenter, that not all parents are created equal.

But the way to fix that is not to come up with false scores that allow for uninformed decision making.

This is perhaps the most frightening possible use of the test scores: parents who don’t care using scores to make school/teacher decisions, and depriving their children of what otherwise might have been the perfect school/teacher combination if the Bobby’s Big Toe scores were ignored.

Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 4, 2008 - 22:00 Permalink

I will try to make this my last comment.

The idea of a standardized world or country or province is a very scary one indeed. It is the imperfections in our respective educations that contribute to us being different. These differences are what give each of us a unique view of the world and unique is sometimes similar views. Johnny may have learned more geography than Jane but she might be able to teach him about religion or history. We should want our children to learn to learn to just to be “schooled” with certain pieces of knowledge. I know I may come across as an idealist or a dreamer but…..

Chuck McKinnon's picture
Chuck McKinnon on January 6, 2008 - 03:06 Permalink

Andrew — from one Alberta reader to another, what voucher system? We homeschool our kids and if I could get the full amount, per-student, that the public schools receive in taxes (instead of only about a quarter of that amount), we’d be able to do a lot more of some kinds of activities with our kids.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on January 6, 2008 - 22:33 Permalink

FWIW, I have the same opinion of standardized tests — ‘blunt instrument for delicate surgery’ type of thing, and what’s worse, it will feel like a precision tool in the hands of an unimaginative official and (if we’re right) it will result in negative results where more efforts are placed — though no doubt kids will do better on standardized tests as their souls get sucked to give administrators a statistical giggle as they stare up their back passage.

We’ve never faced it but my parents did in the ‘96 years’ they faced the system (8 kids * 12 years of school). (When all other efforts failed to deal with an incompetent teacher, my father once closed a school, in which he was a trustee, by removing five of his kids and causing it to fall below minimum enrollment levels. That took real guts and the community was livid as he knew they would be.)

Any parent who is paying attention will know almost immediately whether or not their child’s teacher is incompetent”. What would you do if that were your situation? What’s the right way to handle it?

oliver's picture
oliver on January 7, 2008 - 06:50 Permalink

Any parent who is paying attention will know almost immediately whether or not their child’s teacher is incompetent”

Some will conclude incompetence from a teacher suggesting homosexuality is O.K. or that people are a kind of primate. Public education means taking people’s kids away from them to be raised by and alongside strangers—for about half a day every day except for summer and vacations. It’s only a matter of degree less extreme than declaring them wards of the state, and that’s a practice that the populace abides only because the state publishes and seems to practice standards in applying it. People are less abiding about the education their kids receive to the extent they do not perceive it to be governed strictly by standards (“no child left behind” and not theirs in particular). Unfortunately, parents are even harder to educate than kids, and for the power to educate kids it may resort to placating parents with standards that exist foremost for show and which, if allowed to govern, could leave many kids behind and disserve most of the rest.

oliver's picture
oliver on January 7, 2008 - 06:53 Permalink

Where I wrote “it may resort…” above, the “it” is “the state”

Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 7, 2008 - 15:53 Permalink

Chuck, I am referring to the Charter School/Religious (Cahtolic) School system. You’re right it is not a voucher system exactly but it, in my opinion, takes students and money out of the mainstream school system and thus damages it.

Andrew MacPherson's picture
Andrew MacPherson on January 9, 2008 - 17:26 Permalink

I expect the 2 students of 6 at Dundas school are feeling pretty proud this morning. I am sure they will know who they are. I cannot agree that a result on that few students should have been posted to the web.

Ann's picture
Ann on January 9, 2008 - 18:36 Permalink

Thats a very good point, Andrew and one I thought about this morning when I read the results. When I worked at the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy office, we had many discussions about how PEI’s very small size made it possible to identify people, even through the release of aggregate information.
I really don’t think, for privacy reasons, that this information should have been released — or — some care should have been taken to make it less possible to single people out. The release of personal information related to education is actually against the law.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on January 9, 2008 - 18:40 Permalink

The site with the results says “To protect the privacy of individual students, results have not been reported for schools with less than six students or for schools where the results of all students were the same. Standard rounding practices were followed. Due to rounding averages might vary slightly.” But I agree that with the percentage data, 33% * 6 students = 2 students is setting the threshold too low.