By Michael Zwaagstra (guest opinion)
Standardized testing has long been a topic of significant debate in the Prince Edward Island legislature. During one particularly heated exchange on December 4, 2013, MLA James Aylward asked the education minister why he “continue(s) to waste $1.6 million annually on these tests which appear to be having no impact at all on the education system and on our students?”
Recent data from the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) should help the education minister decisively lay Aylward’s rhetorical question to rest. Since the introduction of standardized testing in 2007, P.E.I. students have risen from the bottom in the country to near the middle in science, reading, and mathematics.
In fact, P.E.I. posted some of the most impressive gains in the country. Since 2007, P.E.I. students improved by 26 points in reading and 32 points in mathematics. Not only did the PCAP report flag these improvements as statistically significant, they were larger than the gains posted by any other province. This evidence suggests that P.E.I.’s standardized tests have led to a sharper focus on the academic basics in this province.
This stands in stark contrast with the province that now sits at the bottom of the academic heap. Over the last fifteen years, the Manitoba government did the exact opposite of P.E.I. and systematically abolished all its standardized tests, with the exception of those at the grade 12 level. During that same time period, Manitoba saw its academic results decline from near the Canadian average to dead last. While P.E.I. posted the most significant gains, Manitoba posted the most significant decline.
Interestingly, when it comes to per-student expenditures, Manitoba ranks near the top in Canada. According to Statistics Canada, Manitoba’s per-student spending comes in a close second to that of Alberta. In the 2010-2011 school year, Manitoba spent an average of $13,150 per student, which was more than $500 higher than the national average and almost $2,000 higher than what P.E.I. spent per student. Clearly, more spending does not necessarily lead to better academic results.
Nevertheless, standardized testing has its critics. Last year, Gilles Arsenault, president of the P.E.I. Teachers’ Federation, raised concerns about the $1.6 million spent annually on these tests, arguing that they could be put to better use in the classroom. However, this argument is merely a smokescreen. The reality is that the Teachers’ Federation would likely oppose standardized testing even if it was free since that is the ideological position taken by every other teachers’ union in Canada.
As for the $1.6 million cost, this makes up only 0.3 per cent of the Department of Education’s total budget. It hardly seems unreasonable for the department to spend 0.3 per cent of its budget on a reliable measure of student academic achievement. To put it another way, abolishing standardized testing would make it possible hire a grand total of 20 new teachers across the entire province. This makes about as much sense as selling off a hospital’s diagnostic equipment in order to hire a few extra surgeons.
It isn’t hard to see why standardized testing has been beneficial for students. With these tests in place, the provincial government now has a more accurate understanding of academic achievement throughout the province. This information makes it possible for the province to target additional support and intervention to schools with low results and also learn from schools that get better results.
Another benefit is that standardized tests help teachers focus their instruction on the mandated curriculum. Knowing that 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.
In fact, both teacher-created assessments of student learning 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.
When it comes to testing, the P.E.I. government is on the right track.
Michael Zwaagstra is the AIMS Fellow in Common Sense Education, a high school teacher, and co-author of the book What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them (michaelzwaagstra.com).