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Alberta girls rule — but why?

October 21, 2014 Laura Harris, ATA News Staff

Students perform well in science testing, but formula for success remains unexplained

It seems the ponytails, pixie cuts and random mohawks of Grade 8 Alberta girls are masking the minds of mad scientists. Well, maybe minds that are mad about science?

Either scenario is plausible to anyone who has seen the report released earlier this month by the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP). In the 2013 assessment of science, reading and mathematics, one of the most striking findings was the high level of achievement in science by Alberta’s Grade 8 students, particularly the girls.

The average mean score achieved in science by Alberta students (521) was number one in Canada — a full 10 points ahead of the number two province, Ontario. The average mean score achieved by Alberta girls was 525, compared to 516 for Alberta boys and to 500 for the national average.

As a former science teacher, ATA president Mark Ramsankar agrees the numbers are great. As a former volleyball coach, he knows the information one can glean from those numbers is limited.

“Standardized test scores are just like football, hockey or volleyball scores,” said Ramsankar. “They show you a result but can tell you absolutely nothing about what went right or what went wrong on the way to achieving it.”

He believes the PCAP numbers are positive indicators in terms of the abilities of the girls — and their teachers — but said more information is needed by all education stakeholders in order to improve Alberta’s education system.

“Our education minister was quoted in the Globe and Mail regarding the PCAP report, saying it provides information that enables the jurisdictions to compare data,” he said. “Yes, people can see which jurisdiction performed better than another on a given day, but what teachers want to know, and all education stakeholders should want to know, is what contributes to these results. What strategies are teachers using to engage students? How are teachers able to address any barriers of language, technology, physical limitations or, in the case of science and adolescent girls, the stigma of science being a male domain?”

Dennis Shirley, a professor at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, is onside with Ramsankar.

In his article Raising Achievement with Integrity, which appears in the Fall 2014 issue of the ATA Magazine, Shirley stated, “Advocates for more testing and accountability have been wrong in many areas, but they have been right to emphasize that the purpose of schools is learning and that we need to know more about how well our students are mastering the curricula. The narrow-minded focus on outcomes, however, obscured our need to attend to the students’ experience of education. When all is said and done, these experiences are what are decisive for the future of the province.”

“It’s great when Alberta students are recognized for performing well,” concluded Ramsankar, “but rather than charts and graphs, it would be useful to have and share information on what factors and strategies contributed to their success.” ❚

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