The future of standardized testing in Canada

Does standardized testing help or hinder your child? We look at how standardized testing works and how some provinces make the test more useful.

By Tim Johnson

The future of standardized testing in Canada
Photography by Carlyle Routh
On most days, Simon Smith's* Grade 10 English classroom is a model of modern educational instruction. A teacher at a small rural high school in southwestern Ontario, Smith is careful to customize his teaching to the learning styles of his 25 students, creating lesson plans that play to the strengths of hands-on, auditory, verbal and other types of learners. He wants his kids to have the best possible shot at comprehending and demonstrating their knowledge of the material. And then, for several weeks each year, he must throw all that out the window and administer the annual province-wide literacy test prepared by Ontario's Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO).

"This standardized test is the total opposite of what we've been doing all year long, and we expect kids to pass it," laments Smith. He says learning outcomes might not be best served by a high-stakes, winner-takes-all test like this one. "It's a high-pressure time for both teachers and students, and, quite frankly, I'm not sure that it tells us that much."

Pros and cons of standardized testing
Standardized tests have become a fixture in almost every 
Canadian province, usually in the form of written and multiple-choice math, reading and writing assessments administered to all students at a given grade level. But while their stated purpose—to ensure everyone has a sufficient grasp of the subject matter—
may seem simple, the realities are far more complex. The pressure added to students, questionable validity of the data and politicization of the statistical outcomes have left some wondering whether these tests should have a place in classrooms at all.

Standardized testing drifted north from the U.S. during the '80s and '90s, as governments tightened their belts and demanded greater accountability for spending. Seeking proof of a return on their investment, politicians and experts heralded the tests' ability to provide a good picture of whether (or not) kids were learning. Each province has its own name and acronym for the test: EQAO in Ontario, Provincial Common Assessments (PCA) in Prince Edward Island, Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT) in Alberta, Foundation Skills Assessments (FSA) in British Columbia, and so on.

"Public desire has grown for this kind of data," says Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, a Toronto-based nonprofit advocacy group and research organization. "People, especially parents, like having a simple and straightforward picture of how a child and school are doing. Having evidence helps—we've seen that this data has helped to improve scores in various schools."

But Kidder admits the scope is far too narrow. With few (if any) exceptions, these tests look at only reading, writing and math. While these three pillars are certainly important, a child's education goes well beyond them—and so should any evaluation. Kidder notes that everything from physical and emotional health to creativity and citizenship is key to the quality of education. "These other areas, which aren't touched on by the test, are also foundational components of education."

Kidder and Daniel Laitsch, associate professor of education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, agree that standardized test results are often politicized—often to the detriment of students. Laitsch says that politicians will use the results in re-election campaigns to show that their policies are working. In addition, ideologically based groups—most notably the Fraser Institute, a think-tank in Vancouver—use (and, some would argue, manipulate) test results to rank schools. The data is also used by real estate agents to sell houses in purportedly "good" school districts. But Laitsch argues that all this hubbub misses the point. "None of it shows what's really happening in the classroom, not without much more thorough assessment."

What's next for standardized testing

Teachers observe that boards and individual schools make the test a top priority. The pressure to succeed is enormous; everything from professional pride to a school's reputation is at stake. Mark Ramsankar, a high school vice-principal and the president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, says standardization interferes with differentiation.

While research shows that each student's learning style should be taken into account—comprehension of the material depends on methods and approaches—these tests require students to answer a series of questions, all in the same fashion. "Teachers are faced with a difficult choice: Do I teach to the test so my kids can do well? Or do I teach a curriculum that inspires critical thinking?" he says.

At least one province has taken a step back, daring to try a different path and providing an example of where standardized testing may be headed. While the details are still an item of debate, Alberta is preparing to roll out what might be the beginning of a new generation of standardized tests, replacing the province's 30-year-old PAT with the Student Learning Assessment (SLA).

Like the PAT, the SLA will test math and literacy in grades 3, 6 and 9, but that's where the similarity ends. Designed by learning experts, the new assessment will be computer-based. Instead of being administered during end-of-year crunch time, the SLA will take place at the start of the school year and will help teachers cater instruction to each student, based on his or her strengths and weaknesses. Simon Smith says he would love to have a similar tool in Ontario. "I'm certainly not against testing," he says. "I just wish we had a more useful test."  

*Name has been changed

From new school assessments to increasing education options, check out the top issues affecting Canadian students and their parents.
                                               
This story was originally titled "By The Numbers" in the September 2014 issue.
           
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