Let parents decide how they use their kids' test results

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Appeared in the Edmonton Journal

It will be much tougher for Alberta parents to ensure their kids are getting a good education if the Alberta government moves ahead with plans to junk the province-wide elementary school achievement tests.

During the Progressive Conservative leadership campaign, candidate Alison Redford apparently promised the teachers' union that, upon becoming premier, she would end the tests or PATs as they are known that have been written each year for decades by virtually all of the province's Grade 3 and Grade 6 students.

Now, Thomas Lukaszuk, Alberta's education minister, sounds eager to turn Premier Redford's promise into a reality. While the minister has stated that the PATs may be replaced with another form of assessment, he has vowed that any new tests will be designed so that neither parents nor anyone else can use the test results to compare the academic performance of students at one school with those at another. Lukaszuk has decided that any such comparisons particularly those contained in the "Fraser Institute's Report Card on Alberta's Elementary Schools" are "a misuse of the data."

While Lukaszuk might be right when he says that the PATs were not originally intended to allow parents to make comparisons between schools, he has no basis for claiming that such comparisons are a misuse of data. After all, the internet was not originally designed to enable individuals to connect with communities via Twitter and yet, by doing so, it has provided great benefit to millions around the world. The minister himself takes full advantage of this "misuse of the internet" with daily tweets on a variety of topics.

Surprisingly, neither Lukaszuk nor Premier Redford has offered any cogent rationale for eliminating the tests. Indeed, the decision to do so seems to fly in the face of research findings generated by major players in the education establishment. A 2009 report commissioned by the education ministry and conducted by four researchers chosen by the Deans of Education at the Universities of Calgary, Alberta, and Lethbridge, concluded "after consultations with a variety of representative groups" that the PATs should be continued as is and that the results should remain publicly accessible.

So why is it important for parents to be able to compare schools using reports based on the PAT test results?

First, each student's individual results provide his or her parents with the only objective second opinion on how their child is progressing in language arts, math, science, and social studies during the elementary school years. If the PAT results confirm the teacher reports of the child's progress, wonderful. If not, then the parent and teacher should have a serious discussion about what needs to be done.

Second, many parents in Alberta have a choice of at least two schools in which to enroll their children. Those living in the larger urban centres often have even more choices. In order to make a more informed decision, parents turn to the Fraser Institute's www.compareschoolrankings.org as one source of objective information on how individual schools are doing academically. All the website's indicators of school performance are based on the PAT results. Each school report also includes useful information such as the average family income at the school and the percentage of students who have special needs. This information makes comparisons even more valuable.

Third, when families already have their children enrolled at a school, they use these same school performance report cards as an annual audit of how the school is doing academically and whether there is any significant improvement or decline in its performance. When the report shows that things at the school are not going well, parents become forceful advocates for improvement.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of parents seek out and study this valuable school performance information. But Lukaszuk says that's a misuse of data and won't be tolerated.

If Lukaszuk and Redford want to ensure that the province offers ever better learning opportunities to all its children, they should champion the PATs, not eliminate them, and let parents decide for themselves how and when to use the results.

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