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Let’s ditch PATs and try sample testing


November 4, 2021 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

On Oct. 27, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange gave a news conference announcing how $45 million in previously announced COVID-related learning supports would be allocated.

LaGrange announced that money would be doled out on a per-pupil basis, based on how students performed on literacy and numeracy tests given earlier in the year. About half of all grade 2 and 3 students in the province would benefit from this funding. Grade 1 funding will come in February after those six and seven year olds are tested. 

(Excuse me while I set aside the very dangerous notion of tying funding to test results, which I will have to visit in another editorial.)

The minister also announced that diploma exam weighting would be reduced to 10 per cent for this year, but that Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) would continue as per normal.

“We have heard the concerns of students and others about the stress and anxiety related to academic achievement during COVID, particularly for high school students writing diploma exams,” said LaGrange. 

The change in diploma exam weighting is a welcome announcement, given the challenges faced by students and schools these past three school years. However, the lack of acknowledgment for grade 6 and 9 student well-being is puzzling.

Despite having gone through the exact same challenges and stresses, every Grade 9 student in the province will have to sit for 460 minutes of exams in four subject areas.

Alberta Education says that the purpose of PATs is to determine if students are learning what they are expected to learn and to report to Albertans how well students have achieved provincial standards. They also say the tests assist the system in monitoring and improving student learning.

I can understand after two years without PAT exams (the sky didn’t fall, by the way) why data-hungry politicians and bureaucrats are particularly eager to see PATs resume.

But there is a better way. There is a way to implement provincial exams that would do a much better job of delivering reliable data to school boards and the province while reducing the risk of harm to students. This year, given all that students and schools have been through, would have been an ideal time to pilot this better way.

What I am talking about is random sampling. 

With a population of 52,000 Grade 9 students in Alberta, the province could get an accurate picture of the achievement of students generally by testing around 1,000 randomly selected students. This size of sample would create an average that would be reliable within about three percentage points of the average for the whole population.

My suggestion would not even be that aggressive. What if the system sample tested students such that each student only had to write one of the four core subject exams? In this case, the provincewide sample would be within 0.7 percentage points of the actual provincial average, 19 times out of 20.

Even taken to the school board level, you would get reasonably accurate and reliable data for the majority of school boards, losing accuracy for only the smallest school boards.

But let’s be honest. The data that is generated now is not that meaningful. These tests tend to be so overly engineered that averages typically only fluctuate within a few percentage points from year to year, fluctuations that I would argue often have much more to do with variances in test design than in student achievement.

Teachers would still get feedback on one-quarter of their students in each subject in each year, which is more than enough data to offer feedback on how teachers might want to adjust their instructional and assessment practices. We definitely know that far too much energy is currently placed on dissecting the innards and entrails of test results that really offer very little meaningful information. 

This change would also result in less emphasis and stakes placed on the tests by the whole system, thereby reducing the cumulative stress endured by students.

Given that a sample system like what I have proposed would dramatically reduce the risk of harm to students, while maintaining any (albeit arguable) value that these tests have, this year seems like the perfect year to give it a shot. It would free up numerous hours in test preparation and implementation that would be far better spent on bridging so-called learning gaps instead of measuring them.

Given the mental and emotional toll that this pandemic has already had on these vulnerable students, this is the ideal time to make a meaningful move to support wellness by changing the tests. ❚ 

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