Saskatchewan students should get ready to write a lot more tests. By 2016, all students in Grades 4 to 12 will write yearly standardized tests in reading, writing, math, and science. This is good news for public education and, if implemented properly, should lead to improved academic achievement for Saskatchewan students.
While the province currently administers some standardized tests to Saskatchewan students, it does so only every other year. In addition, students write each test in only two or three grades. So while the current testing system provides a sample of student achievement, it is too limited in scope to have much of an impact.
A more comprehensive approach to standardized testing will benefit students in a number of ways. One is that these tests will provide the provincial government with a more accurate understanding of academic achievement throughout the province. With this information, the province will be able to target additional support and intervention to schools with low results and also learn from schools that get better results.
As for the concern that schools in rich neighbourhoods will automatically outperform schools in poor neighbourhoods, yearly standardized testing can do far more than simply provide raw scores. Rather, the province will be able to track improvement from year to year. So a school in a poor neighbourhood that shows consistent achievement gains would actually be considered more successful than a school in a rich neighbourhood that remains stagnant. This type of measurement can only be done if the tests are carried out on an annual basis in all grades, as the government has proposed.
Another benefit is standardized tests help teachers focus their instruction on the mandated curriculum. Knowing their students will be tested on the curriculum provides teachers with a strong incentive to cover the key concepts thoroughly. Without standardized tests in place, it is almost impossible to be sure if teachers have actually taught the complete curriculum.
Opposition to the standardized testing announcement came from predictable sources. In an interview with Radio 650 CKOM, Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation president Colin Keess said that additional standardized tests will not help teachers identify the strengths and weaknesses of their students. According to Keess, this is because "standardized assessments are not as useful for informing the daily practices of the teachers." This is a common sentiment among teachers' unions across the country.
This objection, however, reflects a misunderstanding of the purpose for regularly administered standardized tests. Nothing in the government's announcement states standardized testing is expected to take the place of the professional judgment of teachers in their classrooms. Rather, such testing helps provide a more complete picture of student achievement across the province.
In fact, both teacher-created assessment and standardized testing are essential for a balanced approach to student assessment. Teacher-created assessment ensures teachers can take individual student needs into account when designing and evaluating assignments and tests. Standardized testing introduces systematic balance with an objective measurement tool that makes it possible to determine whether provincial curriculum standards have been met.
Another objection was raised by Patrick Lewis, an associate professor in the University of Regina's education faculty. According to the Regina Leader Post, Lewis argued that standardized testing provides only a snapshot of student performance and not a complete picture of overall achievement. He also expressed concern that teachers would simply teach to the test.
This concern can be addressed, however, by making sure the tests are properly correlated with the provincial curriculum. It makes sense to ensure the tests are broad in scope and go beyond an assessment of basic skills. One way to do this is to have the tests also measure content knowledge in the various subject areas. This should reduce the temptation for schools to sacrifice important subjects such as science and social studies when preparing for these tests.
As part of the announcement, Education Minister Russ Marchuk explained that 13 teachers from across the province will be responsible for designing these tests. While it makes sense to give local teachers significant input into the design of these tests, hopefully Marchuk also plans to include measurement experts in the design process. For example, Alberta has the most advanced standardized testing system in the country and officials in its education department could give valuable input about the proper design of these tests.
If designed and implemented properly, standardized testing should result in a better education for the students of Saskatchewan.
Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre (fcpp.org), a Manitoba high school teacher, and co-author of the book, What's Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them. (michaelzwaagstra.com)