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Editorial: Provincial Achievement Tests are broken

November 6, 2018 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

Last month shocking news emerged that a passing mark on last year’s Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) in mathematics was as low as 41 per cent, fuelling further fire about a math crisis in Alberta’s schools.

The Calgary Herald reported the revelation after test results showed that one-third of students in Alberta (and 40 per cent of students in Calgary public schools) failed to meet the acceptable standard on the Grade 9 PAT.

Parents and other pundits pointed to the number as evidence of declining standards in math education in Alberta. Most reflected on their experience in schooling, where a passing grade was typically deemed to be 50 per cent.

In this context, the term passing grade is used as a replacement for the less well understood term cut score.

It is important to note that many people think that the grade on a test is calculated by taking the number of marks a student gets on the test and dividing by the total possible marks. Seems reasonable, as this is what is done in most classrooms around the province. But that is not how it is done for PATs and diploma exams.

Instead, a complex series of formulae incorporates information about the difficulty of test items and the performance of students on a subset of questions relative to the performance of students in previous years on the same subset of questions to determine the final mark. Part of the calculations determine the cut scores, which define whether a student has reached an acceptable standard or whether they have reached a standard of excellence.

These tests are highly engineered by using very technical psychometrics in order to produce complex data sets that are pored over by a large cadre of statisticians and other bureaucrats in order to allegedly pull out information about how students are doing.

In the meantime, all of this alchemy has resulted in test results and test reporting that — for teachers, students and parents — is obscure, meaningless and shrouded in secrecy.

Alberta Education used to publicly release every single provincial achievement test and diploma examination immediately after it was written by students. Students and parents then had a chance to reflect on actual test items to assess what happened. Teachers had an opportunity to use the information to reflect on their practice and to use the test items as a learning tool in future years.

That is now gone.

In its place, we have secret anchor items that are used to see if students are getting better over time. And get this: if student learning actually improves over time, then the tests get marked harder in future years!

This stuff is bananas. B-A-N-A-N-A-S!

These tests have never been more obscure or more meaningless.

Simply put, these tests are broken.

PATs were first introduced in 1983, and aside from bouncing back and forth on whether written portions are included and introducing this complex grading hocus-pocus, they have largely gone unchanged.

In the next few years, we are going to be implementing a modern curriculum for modern students in a modern Alberta. It would be an absolute tragedy — and incredibly counterproductive — if we continued to assess that curriculum and those students with these 30-year-old relics.

We should have dumped them years ago. After a free vote in the legislature more than nine years ago, Alberta’s education minister announced that PATs were being eliminated.

Look, if we want to actually use assessment to improve learning outcomes for students, then we need to tap the assessment capacity of teachers. Support teachers with time, professional development and resources to enable better assessment at the classroom level. Empower teachers with better diagnostic tools and provide them with assessment items that generate meaningful information that can actually be used to inform learning and improve practice.

If the government and school boards still want provincial standards and provincial information, they can give teachers access to provincially developed and field-tested items, and they can continue to use provincial assessments to test a sampling of students. Just do away with this costly, archaic, complex and meaningless regime of testing every kid in every subject every three years.

The purpose of assessment should be to ask the question, “Have students learned what we expect them to learn?” If they haven’t, then we must ensure that they do learn it, and inform future practice so that the next students are better able to learn it.

Our Provincial Achievement Test program does not deliver on that purpose. These tests are broken and they should be trashed. ❚

I welcome your comments — contact me at

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