Fraser Forum

Students pay price for collapse of testing in B.C. schools

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Students pay price for collapse of testing in B.C. schools

Less than half of British Columbia Grade 10 students are now proficient in numeracy. At the same time, the share of B.C. high school students even writing the “assessments” has dropped significantly. So while students are worse off academically, educators and policymakers have a less clear idea of how to help them improve.

B.C. once led the country in provincewide standardized testing and benefitted from strong student performance. Changes beginning in the mid-2000s have dismantled the province’s regime of standardized testing in grades 10 and 12. Student achievement in B.C. high schools is declining, making testing particularly important.

Standardized testing is a critical tool for the fair and objective measurement of student academic performance, as opposed to in-classroom testing by teachers and more subjectively marked projects, which serve a different important role but do not measure all students in the province on a level playing field.

Again, in the 2000s, B.C. began changing its provincewide testing in high schools. In 2018, the province began replacing the remaining mandatory course-content-based exams in Grade 10 math and English and Grade 12 English, which were required for passing the course and graduating, with broader student assessments in Grade 10 numeracy and literacy and Grade 12 literacy.

Moreover, the new student assessments are not marked with clear percentage grades, like the previous exams, but rather are evaluated using vague terms such as “proficient” or “emerging.” Student marks on the assessments also do not contribute to their final course grade or impact graduation. In other words, how well students perform on the tests doesn’t matter.

Curiously, the province says that writing (but not passing) these student assessments is mandatory for graduation. But again, research shows participation in student assessments has plummeted.

Compared to the 2015/16 Grade 10 English exams, participation in B.C.’s Grade 10 literacy assessment among all Grade 10 students (public and independent schools) dropped 17.1 percentage points in 2021/22. Similarly, participation in B.C.’s Grade 10 numeracy assessment declined by 22.3 percentage points compared to the 2015/16 Grade 10 math exams. Participation in the Grade 12 literacy assessment dropped 14.2 percentage points in 2021/22 compared to the 2015/16 Grade 12 English exams.

Student proficiency has also waned significantly in Grade 10. As noted, less than half (48.2 per cent) of B.C. Grade 10 students are proficient in numeracy, according to the 2021/22 assessments, compared to six in 10 (62.4 per cent) of Grade 10 students on the 2015/16 math exams. That’s a decline of 14.2 percentage points.

Similarly in literacy, student performance on the Grade 10 assessments in 2021/22 was 4.1 percentage points lower than on the 2015/16 Grade 10 English exams. About three-quarters (76.4 per cent) of B.C. Grade 10 students are now proficient in literacy compared to 80.5 per cent in 2015/16 English.

In Grade 12, today eight in 10 (80 per cent) of students are proficient in literacy. Student proficiency on the 2021/22 literacy assessment was 2.0 percentage points higher than on the 2015/16 English exams (77.9 per cent).

Finally, the latest results from the international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test scores—the gold standard for standardized testing, which assesses 15-year-olds across the globe—mirror the concerning Grade 10 results in B.C.

Over the last 20 years, from 2003 to 2022, B.C.’s PISA math scores have dropped 42 points. PISA considers a 20-point drop to represent one year of lost learning. This means 15-year-olds in B.C. today are more than two years behind where 15-year-olds in B.C. were in 2003 in math. From 2003 to 2022, B.C. students also dropped 24 points—more than one year of learning—in reading, and eight points in science.

Returning to a strong system of standardized testing in B.C. is well within the provincial government’s control. Doing so would better serve students and help parents, teachers and policymakers understand how students are doing academically and how we can help them improve. The declines in student achievement show that improvement is necessary for B.C. high school students—but if we don’t test, we won’t know, and like with anything else in life, high-quality information makes a world of difference.

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