B.C. government should revitalize standardized testing in schools

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Vancouver Sun, April 18, 2022
B.C. government should revitalize standardized testing in schools

As British Columbia emerges from the pandemic, parents across the province are eager for a return to normalcy in B.C. 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 B.C.

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. Students in B.C. used to write course-specific provincial exams that comprised 20 per cent of their final mark in Grades 10 and 11 and 40 per cent of their final mark in Grade 12. Instead, students now write low-stakes numeracy and literacy assessments that don’t even count towards their final marks. Consequently, students and teachers are less likely to take these tests seriously.

Finally, standardized tests are administered less often and at fewer grade levels than they once were. For example, in 2011 students in the province wrote standardized tests in a wide variety of subjects in Grades 10, 11 and 12 along with the literacy and numeracy assessments in Grades 4 and 7. Now, students in these grades write exams only in literacy and numeracy. As a result, B.C. students write standardized tests in fewer subjects and at fewer grade levels.

Despite pressure from teacher unions and other opponents of standardized testing who want to keep the value of these exams as low as possible, the Horgan government should strengthen standardized testing and make them more meaningful, particularly now as students recover from two years of disruption and learning loss.

If B.C. 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 B.C. schools.