Alberta government should revitalize standardized testing

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Appeared in the Globe and Mail, March 29, 2022
Alberta government should revitalize standardized testing

As Alberta emerges from the pandemic, parents across the province are eager for a return to normalcy in Alberta schools. Perhaps now more than ever, parents and educators must accurately understand the proficiency of students and the education system overall. This is why standardized testing is so important.

What are standardized tests? Basically, they’re administered with consistent instructions, written by all students at the same time and within the same time limit, and scored in the same manner. When properly designed and administered, these tests provide schools, students and parents with an objective measurement of student proficiency in their subjects.

Unfortunately, standardized testing is on the decline in Alberta.

First, standardized tests today place less emphasis on subject-specific knowledge than they once did. Instead, most tests now focus on generic literacy and numeracy skills, which assumes that literacy and numeracy are easily transferable skills. But in reality, these skills are heavily dependant on content. For example, there’s a strong causal relationship between background knowledge and reading comprehension. Students will struggle to read an article if they know nothing about the topic, but have little difficulty reading an article when they possess considerable background knowledge about the topic. By not measuring content knowledge, modern-day standardized tests fail to measure a key (perhaps the most important) thing. As a result of this weak testing, there’s little incentive for teachers to help students acquire the background knowledge they need to be successful citizens.

The second concerning trend is that standardized tests are not given the same value as in the past. For example, the diploma exams written by Grade 12 students in Alberta used to be worth 50 per cent of a student’s final grade in that course. However, in 2015 the Alberta government changed the value of these exams to only 30 per cent of the final grade.

To make matters worse, this school year, diploma exams are worth only 10 per cent of the final mark, which dramatically reduces the importance of exams. While this change is supposed to be temporary due to the pandemic, teacher unions and other opponents of standardized testing will likely put significant pressure on the Kenney government to keep the value of these exams as low as possible.

Finally, standardized tests are administered less often and at fewer grade levels than they once were—in Manitoba and Saskatchewan standardized tests have practically disappeared. It’s not quite as bad in Alberta, although in 2014 the government abolished the Grade 3 standardized exams. Now Alberta students write these exams at three grade levels only.

Clearly, the Kenney government should place a stronger emphasis on standardized testing. For starters, it could follow through on its 2019 promise to reinstate the Grade 3 exams, change the value of Grade 12 diploma exams back to 50 per cent, and ensure that the Grades 3, 6 and 9 exams adequately measure subject-specific content knowledge.

If Alberta students are going to compete successfully against students from across the country and around the world, they must obviously be well-educated. This means ensuring that standardized testing is regularly used in Alberta schools.

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