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Assessment program facing challenges

October 7, 2014 ATA News Staff

Grade 3 students throughout the province are beginning to participate in a new assessment program that’s replacing the previous provincial achievement tests.

Educators encounter bumps during rollout of new Student Learning Assessments

Alberta’s Grade 3 teachers are experiencing some growing pains as they begin to roll out the province’s new Student Learning Assessment (SLA) program.

SLAs, which will eventually replace Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) at the grades 3, 6 and 9 level, are being piloted this fall at the Grade 3 level. The Association has called in recent years for the replacement of PATs with more diagnostic supports for teachers and is hopeful that issues identified in the pilot implementation can be resolved.

Teachers around the province are reporting various issues ranging from technical glitches with the computerized portion of the assessments, onerous time requirements to input student information and a lack of information necessary to adequately prepare students for the exercises.

“There’s a lot of pretty frustrated people right now, a lot of stressed out people,” said Ada Aiuto, a Grade 3 teacher at Glamorgan School in Calgary.

The SLA initiative, to be administered in four one-hour sessions from Sept. 29 to Oct. 24, is an effort to replace the previous provincial achievement tests with beginning-of-the-year assessments in literacy and numeracy, with each element assessed via a digitally scored component as well as a performance-task component.

It’s estimated that administering the assessments will take four hours of instructional time and 45 minutes per student for grading and inputting student scores. For a typical Grade 3 class of 25 students, this could involve upwards of 20 hours of teachers’ time. Aiuto believes her workload will be closer to 50 hours.

“If this was meant to be a better solution, that’s not what we have here,” she said. “A lot of this is pretty painful.”

Concerns about teacher workload prompted the ATA to call on Education Minister Gordon Dirks to direct school boards to withdraw from the pilot if they can’t provide adequate time for their Grade 3 teachers to collaborate and to evaluate the SLAs.

After a briefing with the ATA, Dirks issued a letter requesting that school boards and administrators take steps to provide teachers with whatever reasonable supports they may need to ensure their workloads are not significantly impacted. He also extended the assessment period by two weeks until Oct. 24.

ATA President Mark Ramsankar said the Association is aware of the issues that are “starting to percolate” as the program rolls out.

“Although we see the value of this program, more consideration needed to be given to the impact on teacher workload. I am glad that the education minister responded when he was made aware of our concerns,” Ramsankar said.

“Any pilot program comes with many challenges. We’ll continue to monitor this program with an eye toward ­potential improvements for the future,” he added.


Several education partners, including the ATA, provided input into the broad design principles of the new SLA program. The ATA sent a representative to several schools around the province to observe the rollout of the assessment program during its first week.

The first and foremost issue to arise concerned the teacher time needed to manage the front-end requirements of inputting student information and sorting through technical issues of capacity and access. There have been numerous reports of students losing access to the web-based assessment tool, requiring them to repeatedly log in.

“In a classroom of 24 Grade 3s, there are no small problems when the technology doesn’t work,” said one teacher.

The ATA has also observed some assessments that have run flawlessly, due to extensive planning by school administration, which included consulting with teachers, inputting student data and ensuring IT support was in place.

School administrators who had more success with the assessments also reported spending considerable time planning.

“Getting ready for the SLAs is just one more activity our busy staff is doing. Only time will tell if this additional effort actually helped students,” said Jason Clifton, principal of Granum School in southern Alberta.

In another classroom visited by ATA staff, several students completed the literacy assessment in 35 minutes while several others struggled to complete the questions in the one-hour time slot.

“Clearly these assessments are telling us as much about students’ familiarity with technology as anything else,” the teacher commented.

At Acadia School in Calgary, principal Barb James said she understands the need to support the SLAs, and said she planned in advance to minimize the administrative time for her five Grade 3 teachers. But looking past the pilot, she wonders about the time involved.

“What better uses of teacher time might there be rather than spending two hours inputting student data, getting access to the teacher dashboard, never mind the four hours of class time needed to administer these ­assessments in addition to a whole day committed to marking?” she said.

Kelly Smith, a Grade 3 teacher at Mountain View School in Hinton, said “the SLAs are going OK” but are causing some stress and creating a lot of work.

“It is a lot of extra busy work that people outside schools take for granted—photocopying, printing, booking computer labs, ensuring kids have headphones and that they can access the tests. This is all do-able and finicky—I hope [the tests] are worth it but at this point I’m not optimistic they will have a positive impact on student learning.”

Access to information

Another issue that educators have raised is the lack of advance information about the content and nature of the assessments, which prevented teachers from adequately preparing their students.

“While the intent of the SLA program is sound, clearly better communication and earlier access to the information teachers needed to ensure an optimal experience for students would have helped,” said Wilma Bayko, principal at LaPerle School in Edmonton.

“If teachers could see what their students were expected to do, the level of confusion would have been greatly reduced. After all, this is not a test and certainly SLAs were supposed to be a departure from the provincial achievement testing program.”  ❚ 

The ATA has set up an area on its website for teachers to share their thoughts and observations about the SLAs.

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