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Manitoba schools need to be tested

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Education Minister James Allum was dismissive of advice from a university professor who recently analysed what measures Manitoba, among the other provinces, might use to improve students' math, reading and science education. Mr. Allum is also clinging to policies that, while politically strategic, have not been shown to make much of a difference to teaching or test scores. Time for a rethink, Mr. Allum.

Manitoba has seen its ranking among provinces and other nations fall in international assessments of high school students' competence in math, reading and science, a trend confirmed in spades by the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment last year.

Among the more worrisome signs from analysis of this province's results was the fact that even the highest performers among Manitoba's 15-year-olds were slipping compared with others in their level. The trend held for students from the higher income levels, who fare better on the PISA than children from low-income homes.

A recent analysis of what works in student achievement by Simon Fraser University Prof. John Richards found there are some policy decisions from jurisdictions posting impressive results that others could emulate. Manitoba pays its teachers well, and salary counts.

But Mr. Richards suggested Manitoba could invest more in early-childhood education, ensuring those of lower-income homes get access to such resources that tend to be taken up by children of wealthier families. Further, he found that provinces, such as British Columbia, that collect data on student achievement and publish that data, school by school, have also done better in raising performance.

Mr. Allum rejected the advice. Publishing results, he believes, would pit one school against another, which Manitoba is not interested in doing.

Making public that information would give parents the ability to assess their child's school and hold teachers and administrators to account, perhaps even switching schools should the responses and efforts (or lack thereof) prove unsatisfactory. But parents could be impressed if a school were to show how achievement scores posted in the early part of the year were raised through additional care and resources -- the very purpose of collecting that data.

Manitoba's NDP government has made any hope for such an undertaking difficult, however, having done away in 1999 with provincial standards tests introduced by the former Tory administration. At one time, general data were published on the department's website on the results of the province's comprehensive assessment of some primary grades. But that, too, has disappeared.

The answer to improving the academic achievement of high -schoolers requires a pointed effort in very early grades. Some of that has begun in Manitoba, with renewed emphasis in primary school of traditional methods of instruction, along with newer styles.

Mr. Allum is standing by his government's refusal to regularly measure achievement through standardized tests, and publish the results. He insists the provincial policy to cut class size will do more for improving results.

That runs contrary to numerous studies, including the PISA results, which were confirmed by Mr. Richard's analysis that found classes of fewer than 20 children did not contribute to improved learning.

Further, a recent survey by the OECD on teacher attitudes found that teachers believed it was not the size of the class that determined their ability to do their jobs, but the kinds of students in the mix -- the presence of students who have behavioural issues made it more difficult to teach effectively.

The decision to do away with standardized testing and to cut class size catered to the Manitoba Teachers Society, not to the best interests of students. There is good evidence to push the NDP to reconsider its costly policies. It should start with reintroducing provincial exams in earlier grades and making the school results public.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 30, 2014 A12

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