School standardized testing about accountability, not fairness

It seems that most, if not all, principals, teachers and teachers’ unions hate school-based standardized testing. Why? Well, according to Ian Gillespie’s column in the London Free Press on November 24th (H/T Catherine), it’s because the tests are costly to administer, stressful for the students and unfair to teachers.

Too costly? Unfair to teachers? How? Do they not indicate how well students can perform certain tasks? Do they not indicate whether or not students have all the skills they need to read and calculate? Yes? Well then, if that is the case, they are neither too costly or unfair. 

However, that said, the problem seems to be that teachers as a group do not want to be held responsible for what a child learns. They also don’t like the competition that results from ranking schools. Which may not be fair, but which is, after-all, what public accountability is all about!

Now, I have some sympathy having been on the front lines for more than a dozen years. I mean, you can’t simply open up a child’s head and dump in the learning. They have to be willing to be active participants in their own learning. However, if teaching practice research over the past fifty years has shown us anything, it is that the way a teacher teaches influences the way children participate — and yes, learn. So, it’s a two-way street.

However, teachers don’t like to have that responsibility. Thus, the likely reason they think standardized tests are unfair is because they are not only exposing how well a specific class is performing, by default, they are also showing how well a teacher is teaching — and, let’s not forget, given how parents use school rankings,  how well an entire school is doing .

Then, there is the endless cry that if students do badly they are maimed for life because their self-esteem is crushed. Hogwash! Absolute nonsense. Life if about stress. Life is about succeeding and failing. I mean, that is how we learn, by screwing up and learning from our mistakes.

Which is why I am so against “success” policies that are nothing more than “no-fail” policies or social promotion policies that push kids through from one grade to the next before they are ready. Short sighted hardly begins to describe the current ideology in most school boards in Canada and the U.S.

Well, this type of philosophy has to change. It has to change because the standardized testing results we do have, in Canada at least, indicate the results are abysmal. Meaning, that far too many of today’s high school graduates are not ready for college, university or an apprenticeship, in terms of the skills they will need to complete qualifying tests.

Need proof? Here is a section from Gillespie’s column with quotes from Jim Cote, a sociologist at the University of Western Ontario and one of the authors of the Ivory Tower Blues (a blog that has been on my favourites list for some time).

“‘The low-achieving students obviously need some remediation. I mean, isn’t that the point?’ says Cote, a professor in the University of Western Ontario’s sociology department and co-author of Ivory Tower Blues: A University System in Crisis. ‘The intention is not to be punitive. The intention is to bring up everybody’s standards.’ And those standards, he says, are abysmal. A survey of nearly 2,000 faculty and librarians from 22 Ontario universities released last year reported first-year students frequently displayed a lack of required writing, math and critical thinking skills, poor research abilities and an expectation of success without the requisite effort.

All these problems,’ says Cote, stem back to the 1960s when department exams were abolished and grades began to be routinely inflated to boost overall averages. ‘Grade inflation is really messing up the system,’ says Cote, whose new book on the topic (Lowering Higher Education, co-written with Anton Allahar) is due out in a few months. ‘We’re getting people coming to university who are really not prepared. They’ve been given totally false feedback.’

Cote says making a student feel better about their abilities avoids the real problems revealed by the tests. ‘You’re really doing (students) harm because they’ll eventually hit the wall and do a major fail, and that’s not good for self-esteem,’ he says, adding testing helps students prepare for the stresses of life. ‘If there are problems, let’s deal with these problems: Identify those (students) who are weak and who need remediation, and get them help early. But don’t pass them on to universities and expect us to do it, because it’s too late.'” [My highlighting.]

Students have “been given totally false feedback.” Cote is right on! When I was teaching university, undergraduate students — who were training to be teachers — would show up in my office asking me to change their marks. Why? Because they inevitably thought their mark was too low and that they deserved an “A” because they had, quote: “worked hard.”

When I would explain that, since I had no idea how hard anyone had worked, I had to base my mark totally on what they handed in, they seemed puzzled. Yes, I would explain, I gave marks for grammar, spelling and presentation of sources and footnotes, but that an “A” was only ever given, not only for a near-perfect presentation, but for a well argued and exceptional argument and defence.

In other words, students need to be taught what accountability means, what an “A” means. As such, school standardized testing should be here to stay, in fact increased to include more grade levels.  Yes, it is about public accountability, but more than that, it is about students learning that they too are accountable for their own success or failure.

And so, the crux of the matter is that it should NOT be considered unfair to students, teachers or the teachers’ unions that our provincial governments insist on having standardized testing.

Do Fraser rankings “really” reflect the quality of schools?

When families move into new communities, what is one of the first things parents ask their real estate agent?  You guessed it. They ask: Where are the best schools and how do you know they are the best?  And, on the basis of the answer, the parents decide then and there where they want to rent or purchase housing.

Now, just how do people find out where the best schools are located? In the past, they speak to everyone they know who lives in the community where they are moving. Then, they make an informed decision. Now, it seems, the Fraser Institute’s school rankings is the primary source parents are using.

But, is that all there is to a school? Do the rankings alone “really” reflect the quality of a school?  Or, should other criteria be used as well? For example:

  • Is there a strong emphasis on academics?
  • Is there a good sports program?
  • Are there extra-curricular activities in the arts?
  • Is there a school choir or band?
  • Is there a strong school spirit?
  • Do children like attending?
  • Do the teachers communicate well with the parents?
  • Are the staff dedicated?
  • Do the staff undertake professional development?
  • Is the principal approachable?
  • Does the principal treat parents with respect?
  • Are there a lot of parent volunteers?
  • Is the school council effective?

And, so on. Or, do the rankings themselves mean enough — as in — if the children do well in the annual tests, then that means there are good teachers and the school is good. Is that a fair analysis? Or, is this whole process a self-fulfilling prophecy? 

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ON school rankings confirm skill development

To all Ontario taxpayers — which of course includes parents — the school rankings that came out yesterday are a good thing. They not only indicate how some schools are struggling, they also show how some are gradually improving year-over-year during a five year period. And, of course, they indicate those schools that are doing exceptionally well. 

So, not only are the rankings giving parents and educators a snapshot of what is going on in the publicly funded system overall, they are also giving parents a choice.  For example, some boards of education have open boundaries and IF — and that is a big IF — there is room in a school that is ranked high, children from other neighbourhoods can attend. Similarly, if parents are about to relocate, they have an idea where they might want to move.

Of course, for the same reasons, many of those within the education system itself, don’t like the rankings. First and foremost, the criticism is that all teachers are doing is “teaching to the test.” Well, what is wrong with that if the students are all learning the same knowledge and skills?

Another criticism is that the testing is arbitrary and may seem unfair when two schools in completely different communities are being compared to one another. For example, you could have one school community that is full speed ahead with block scheduling and the balanced school day approach to curriculum with literacy and numeracy tasks taking up half the day — and — where lots of parent volunteers are available. Whereas, in another school community, the teaching staff are doing their best dealing with a high population of ESL and special needs students and there are few parent volunteers because the majority of parents work outside the home.

Nevertheless, while there are limitations to the rankings, as Moira MacDonald writes in today’s Toronto Sun, they are really the only comparison and accountability tools taxpayers have.  So, if for no other reason than that, they are a good thing.

However, let’s not lose track of the rationale behind the testing in the first place — that students learn and be tested on the SAME literacy and numeracy skills they all MUST have, no matter where they attend school.

That is the bottom line.