Provincial governments are putting a lower priority on standardized testing of public school students at the very time it’s needed to assess where their education systems stand in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report by the Fraser Institute.
“The decline of standardized testing in Canada has reduced the availability of important data that’s essential to understand how our education system performs and how to best help students improve,” said Paige MacPherson, co-author of the study, Testing Canadian Kindergarten to Grade 12 Students: Regional Variability, Room for Improvement.
In a previous report, the fiscally conservative think tank argued this decline has been going on for two decades, with three trends occurring during that time.
First, “standardized tests today place less emphasis on subject-specific knowledge.”
Second, they’re “not given the same value as they once were” by educators.
Third, they’re being “administered less often and at fewer grade levels.”
The latest report says the best education systems perform regular, uniform standardized testing of students at multiple grade levels, ensure the tests are consistent and transparent, count them towards student grades and make school and district results available to the public.
While every province could improve its performance, the study says Alberta has the most comprehensive program for administering standardized tests to students, while at the other end, Saskatchewan doesn’t have a province-wide testing program.
Newfoundland and Labrador is expanding standardized testing, but other provinces have downgraded it due to such factors as political pressure from teacher unions (B.C.) or a change in government (Manitoba).
“These testing programs have been a seemingly perpetual target of teachers’ unions in every region of Canada and, indeed in some provinces, such as British Columbia, province-wide testing has weakened,” the study says.
Almost every province has cancelled or downgraded the importance of standardized testing during the pandemic because of widespread disruptions to the academic year and more online versus in-class learning, requiring major adjustments for both students and teachers.
Reviving and expanding standardized testing now is especially important, the study says, because, “testing all students on a fair, level playing field, provides critical information to students and parents, aiding students’ improvement” as well as providing “important data about provincial education systems to policymakers and the public.
“Uniform achievement tests that allow for external comparison — not to be confused with classroom tests given by teachers and schools — are an important key to improving student achievement and facilitating school-level comparisons.”
While polls show the public is generally supportive of standardized testing as a way for parents to assess not only how their children are doing in school, but how well they are being taught and how their school compares to others, critics have a wide range of objections to standardized testing.
They argue it results in “teaching to the test” at the expense of the curriculum as a whole, that they skew in favour of students living in upper-income families and neighbourhoods and that the questions are often biased against students who come from other countries and cultures, or who live in communities where poverty is high.
They say better, and more accurate results can be achieved through in-classroom learning and testing.
Skeptics say the reason teacher unions and many educators oppose standardized testing, is that it often exposes how poorly students are being taught fundamental skills in subjects such as English and math, despite the increasing costs of public education.