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Less testing, more funding


April 26, 2022 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief


F&Ps, HLATs, MIPIs, CATs, LeNS, CC3s, WRATs and WIATs — these are just a few of the standardized assessments that often inundate Alberta schools. 

Many of these assessments can be very time-consuming and work-intensive to administer. Sometimes they are done at the discretion of the teacher, but often they are mandated by school boards for all students. Sometimes the assessments are used repeatedly throughout the year and sometimes given to the same students year after year.

It doesn’t matter how many times a gardener counts their rosebuds. If they aren’t adequately feeding and watering their plants, they won’t bloom. Put another way, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Last week, the education minister announced that, starting in the fall, all school authorities will be required to administer certain standardized assessments to every grade 2 and 3 student. Grade 1 students will begin mandatory testing in 2023.

In some ways, the announcement from the minister is positive. The UCP’s 2019 election platform called for mandatory standardized testing for students in every grade from one to three. I feared that this would mean new PATs would be developed and administered every single year for every single six, seven and eight year old. This recently announced approach is somewhat better than that alternative, because the tests are much better focused on diagnostics, and many school boards are already mandating them, so it is an expansion of the status quo rather than an add-on.

But at the same time, the new policy is still flawed fundamentally. By focusing on the assessment, while missing the boat on the intervention and instruction side of the equation, we do nothing to improve student learning — we just end up with more and more useless data about which students are going to struggle, while continuing to allow them to struggle.

It’s a similar misapplication of fundamental principles at play on the curriculum. When the final English language arts curriculum was released earlier this month, Fort Vermilion superintendent Michael McMann crowed about how the curriculum used in his school division raised reading levels by up to three grade levels in just one year. This is amazing, but it glossed over the fact that the pilot project used in Fort Vermilion did not just use a new curriculum and approach to teaching reading, it also featured intensive small-group interventions with students. 

According to McMann in a Toronto Star article, some of the students had access to 110 lessons, one hour a day, of intervention.

It’s not the testing and it’s not the curriculum that bring about the significant change, it’s the intervention. I don’t have to tell teachers this. They see the same students slipping through the cracks right before their eyes.

In the past four years, class sizes have grown significantly, while access to EAs and other supports have eroded. Adjusting for inflation, per pupil funding in Alberta will have dropped 10 per cent between 2018/19 and 2022/23.

I would like to offer data about how the funding decline has affected class sizes, but the government stopped collecting that data — at exactly the same time they stopped funding class-size reductions.

In 2018/19, by the way, Alberta ranked seventh among Canadian jurisdictions in per pupil spending on public education and spent $435 less per student than the provincial average. It would take an investment of about $300 million to bring Alberta spending up to the national average. Imagine what could be done to help struggling readers if we had an additional 3,000 to 3,500 teachers.

But let’s also consider what would happen if we allowed teachers to practice more like doctors do. Teachers would have discretionary access to a wide range of diagnostic tools. They could assess students individually or as a group, using the most appropriate tools, at the moments best suited for the student and the teacher. They could refer students to specialists who could do more assessments or provide interventions. Moreover, the teachers would have the time and resources to offer their own interventions. They could access the appropriate supports and resources to respond to the diagnostic information and to get the students the help they needed.

This ideal world hinges on teachers’ ability to get to know their students individually and access those resources. As long as funding continues to erode, that goal is unreachable. It doesn’t matter how many times you test kids, if you don’t adequately fund education, then nothing can be done to address those test results. ❚

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