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February 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 5

Results, Results, Results?

Provincial achievement exams create undue pressure on students, teachers, and schools. Even worse, the tests fail to assess what students will need to know in the next century.

In 1963, Bob Dylan sang, "The times they are a-changin'." And the times they are a-changin' in Alberta, Canada, when it comes to educational assessments.
In Alberta, students are required to take provincial achievement tests, which are similar to statewide assessment tests in the United States. Before 1994, students in grade 3 took either a language arts or a mathematics test, which alternated from year to year, and students in grades 6 and 9 took one core subject provincial test each year. The school received the test results, and parents could obtain their child's results from the school. But in 1994, corresponding with the election of a conservative government, the amount of provincial testing skyrocketed.
Now all 3rd graders must take a language arts and a math provincial test every year, and students in grades 6 and 9 must take provincial achievement tests in all four core subjects each year. The school-by-school results are released to the media, and each fall, the local newspapers rank schools according to their provincial test scores.

New Initiatives

In spring 1999, the Alberta Department of Education announced that by the 2000-2001 school year, it would distribute $66 million to school boards that show improvements in key performance indicators (a euphemism for provincial achievement-test results). There was such a backlash against the program by teachers, school boards, and parents that in June 1999 the program was axed. In its place, the department introduced a program in which a certain percentage of education funds are allocated to school boards to address individual school needs. But the department hopes eventually to have a program in which school boards are given financial incentives for positive test results.
The Department of Education operates under the assumption that good test results mean that children are receiving a good education; however, the opposite could be true. According to Arthur Wirth, author of Education and Work for the Year 2000: Choices We Face (1992), some unsavory school practices are emerging in the United States because of the increased time and emphasis that schools place on standardized testing. Wirth takes exception to teaching to the test, but in Alberta, similar practices are emerging.
Teaching to the test is becoming common here. In Calgary, the largest city in Alberta, teachers in one school give parents hundreds of facts for their 8-year-olds to memorize. The teachers stress that parents must help drill these facts into the children so that the school will have good provincial test results. In another Calgary school, students take practice exams—which mirror the provincial tests—a full three months ahead of exam time. The Calgary Public School Board has hired a resource person—with a doctorate and a salary of $70,000 a year—to assist schools and teachers in improving provincial test scores.

Changes in the Curriculum

In Alberta, the mission driving education has changed from the development, teaching, and assessment of a sound curriculum to the desire for good test results at any cost. Some teachers openly wonder whether the provincial achievement exams are becoming the curriculum. In 1997, the Minister of Education gave a speech to teachers, school trustees, and Alberta ASCD members, advising them to refocus their educational visions on "results, results, results."
Meanwhile, budgets for curriculum development and implementation have been severely slashed. In 1999, schools had so much difficulty providing inservice training and resources for teachers to learn the new grade 10 mathematics curriculum that they had to delay its implementation for a year. Yet moneys allotted for provincial achievement testing have dramatically risen since 1994.
Provincial achievement testing is here to stay—despite the possibility that testing dehumanizes students. In The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School (1995), Neil Postman cautions against adopting educational "gods" that fail to put students first and thus dehumanize them. By putting test results before the needs of students, educators are making schools neurotic. Worries about scores and rankings outweigh important humanistic practices, such as discussion, critical thinking, teamwork, and the development of responsibility. Teachers are teaching students less and obtaining results more. We are sacrificing care and love for marks.
What are the results of such an educational policy? Students with filled heads and empty hearts, knowing but uncaring, Spocks with no McCoys. And the pressure to get good "results, results, results" continues.

Student Pressures

Some students in Alberta feel the increased pressure, whereas others are angry at having to take the tests. Most junior high schools in Alberta use the grade 9 provincial achievement exams as their final exams. Some parents, concerned that the pressure is too much, are refusing to let their children take the exams. In fall 1998, the Calgary Herald ran stories about parents who kept their kids home on provincial exam days. In another Calgary junior high school, several students wrote "Up Yours, Ralph" (a slur against Ralph Klein, the premier of Alberta) on their language arts essay.
Still other students have responded to the pressure by cheating. At first, students could take the provincial exams any time during the last two weeks of June. However, teachers discovered that students in Calgary who took the exams first were giving exam answers to their friends at schools in other neighborhoods. This level of cheating hadn't occurred when students felt less pressure to perform. Now, all schools in the province must take the same exam on the same date at the same time.

Teacher Pressures

One teacher says that he feels like a citizen of Elm Terrace in Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 (1950). In the novel, the police order all citizens to look out their doors to find escaped fireman Guy Montang, and right on cue they do exactly what they are told. Are teachers in Alberta engaging in similar robotlike behavior? Ironically, these individuals are charged with teaching children democratic principles and freethinking skills.
With increased pressure and possible financial rewards connected to good test results, will some Alberta teachers resort to cheating, too? According to Kevin Bushweller (1997), teachers in the United States are also under pressure to get results, and a few have resorted to cheating. The consequences for the offending teachers have been suspensions and, ultimately, the sack. However, the temptation to represent the school in a positive light and to get financial rewards remains great.
What about legal cheating? Most educators know that children with special needs generally do not fare as well on the exams as other students do. Therefore, across the province, teachers, principals, and superintendents tried to have special needs students exempted from taking the provincial exams. This exemption would keep school and school board results high.
In response, the Department of Education has made it increasingly difficult for students to be exempted from the tests. Every student, regardless of special needs, must take the tests. In fact, students who are absent from the exams receive a zero instead of no mark—a strong incentive to take the exams! This is a sad educational practice. The department puts much thought into obtaining results, but little thought into the feelings of students. Is humanism dying in Alberta schools?

Flaws in Testing

Given the amount of time, energy, and money devoted to provincial achievement exams, it is even more disturbing that the exams are not an accurate measure of what Alberta students know. W. James Popham (1999) proposes that standardized achievement scores are only a rough approximation of a student's achievement. University of Alberta professor W. T. Rodgers (1997) found that socioeconomic status was by far the strongest predictor of students' performance on provincial achievement tests. In other words, provincial achievement exams test not what students learn but what parents are able or willing to provide for their children.
Perhaps the biggest knock against provincial exams is that teachers, school boards, and governments who use and rely on them are ignoring recent research on assessing intelligence and skills that students will need to succeed in the 21st century. According to Daniel Goleman (1995), intelligence is about more than remembering facts. Intelligence has an emotional component. Highly capable people are aware of their feelings, can empathize with others, can solve problems, and can control their emotions. Provincial achievement exams fail to test emotional intelligence.
Indeed, the tests emphasize little of what students will need to know to be citizens of the 21st century. Students will need to work in teams, to have superior communication skills, to gain access to and analyze large amounts of information, to solve complex social problems, and to create and test new ideas. Provincial exams do little to promote or assess these skills. Rather, they are an archaic tool that fulfills a political agenda rather than an educational one. Provincial exams might assess a student's ability to spell the word thinking, but they do nothing to promote thinking.

Injustices to Students

Parents and governments do want clear assessments of students' abilities. Good teachers know this and welcome the challenge. But we must consider other authentic measures. Given that today's students must learn new skills and new ways of thinking—along with basic subject knowledge—proper assessments must range far beyond the provincial achievement exams.
For example, teachers often use student portfolios, skills checklists and inventories, anecdotal observations, and written compositions to assess students. Also, practical hands-on projects such as science labs, math mobiles, or school newspapers are excellent ways to demonstrate student skills. Creative teachers assess critical thinking rather than the student's ability to remember—by rote—snippets of information.
Long ago, good teachers ceased to be assembly-line workers whose job was to spoon-feed information to students who, in turn, spewed out answers on provincial tests. Students deserve better. They deserve to be taught how to think. They need to be educated so that they can live and prosper in the modern world. The prompting, prepping, and large price tags connected to the provincial exams do little to improve education. Teachers need to stand up for what is pure and right in education and demand an end to excessive provincial and statewide testing.

Bradbury, R. (1950). Fahrenheit 451. Toronto, Canada: Random House.

Bushweller, K. (1997, September). Teaching to the test. American School Board Journal, 184(9), 24.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Toronto, Canada: Bantam.

Popham, W. J. (1999, March). Why standardized tests don't measure educational quality. Educational Leadership, 56, 8-16.

Postman, N. (1995). The end of education: Redefining the value of school. New York: Knopf.

Rodgers, W. T. (1997). Examination of the influence of selected factors on performance on Alberta Education achievement tests with Edmonton public schools. [Tech. report]. Edmonton, Canada: Edmonton Public School Board.

Wirth, A. G. (1992). Education and work for the year 2000: Choices we face. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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