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ATA president presses minister to end PATs

October 25, 2016 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief


In a letter to the education minister dated Oct. 6, ATA president Mark Ramsankar requested that Provincial Achievement Tests be discontinued this school year.

Alberta Teachers’ Association president Mark Ramsankar is urging Education Minister David Eggen to announce, by the end of 2016, that Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT) will be discontinued this school year. In a letter sent earlier this month, Ramsankar wrote that cancelling PATs, “would be good for students and for teachers and focus attention on the task of coming up with educationally sound, publicly acceptable alternatives.”

At its September meeting, Provincial Executive Council directed that the letter be written to encourage the minister to follow through with the previous government’s commitment to end the PAT program. In May 2013, then education minister Jeff Johnson announced that Student Learning Assessments (SLAs) would replace PATs at the Grade 3 level in 2014, the Grade 6 level in 2015 and the Grade 9 level this school year.

Ramsankar acknowledges that the SLA program still needs to be refined, but he also believes that the continuing pilot of SLAs at the Grade 3 level should not delay the end of PATs.

“The PAT program has long outlived its usefulness and, in its current form, is actually undermining teachers’ efforts to foster meaningful student learning consistent with the broad range of curriculum outcomes,” writes Ramsankar in his letter.

Ramsankar’s letter offers a strong critique of the PAT program, outlining how the results are being misrepresented by organizations such as the Fraser Institute and how the situation is made worse by their use in government accountability pillar reports.

“The PATs were not intended or designed for this purpose and, in this context, the PAT results do nothing to meaningfully inform system improvement,” writes Ramsankar. “While you and your predecessors have for decades decried such misuse of these tests, their continued administration simply enables such irresponsible practices to continue unfettered year after year after year.”

“It’s well past time to kill this zombie,” writes Ramsankar.

Although Eggen tweeted last month that the government is not removing standardized tests, the government has expressed a commitment to engaging in a broad dialogue around student assessment, system performance measures and public assurance. In a June letter to the Association, Education deputy minister Curtis Clark stated that a collaborative system-level discussion would be had with education stakeholders to determine the best approach for system assurance at the provincial level.

Ramsankar appreciates that dialogue but argues in his letter that an announcement to end PATs doesn’t have to wait.

“We look forward to participating in and facilitating this dialogue with our members and the public,” he writes. “Our concern is that the continued administration of the PATs simply because, well that’s what we’ve always done, will be an obstacle to the development and implementation of creative and effective alternative approaches to assessment.”

Last Thursday, Provincial Executive Council reviewed Association policy on assessment and assurance in order to develop a foundation for Association submissions in upcoming consultations with government. The Association expects to release a statement of principles in the near future.

In the meantime, Ramsankar says the Association will continue to advocate for the required improvements needed on the SLA program as well as an immediate end to PATs. ❚

Ramsankar advocates for broad approach to improving student outcomes

Alberta high school students achieved high marks on their Grade 12 diploma exams, according to Alberta Education in its annual release of examination results. The release touts achievement in the four diploma-level science courses and notes that most other subjects and grade levels indicated fluctuations within the expected range, with the exception of Grade 6 mathematics.

The percentage of Grade 6 exam writers who achieved an acceptable standard has slid from 82.2 per cent to 79.3 per cent in the five years since 2011/12. At the same time, the proportion of students who achieved a standard of excellence on the exam fell from 18.3 per cent to 15.4 per cent.

Education Minister David Eggen stated in the release that the government is taking steps to improve math achievement.

“We are working with post-secondary institutions to improve training for new teachers,” said Eggen. “We have also clarified expectations around basic math skills, including adding a new section to the Grade 6 math Provincial Achievement Test (PAT) that is designed to ensure students can solve basic number operations without using a calculator.”

In response, Alberta Teachers’ Association president Mark Ramsankar said it’s important for the government to not fixate too much on a relatively small decline over a number of years in one subject.

“Less than 30 per cent of achievement on standardized tests can be attributed to schools and teachers,” said Ramsankar. “Out-of-school factors, including parental income levels, are bigger drivers of exam results.”

Ramsankar said that addressing factors like students’ readiness to learn through efforts like school lunch programs, preschool programming or quality child care will do more to improve outcomes than any tweaks directed just at the school system. He also said that in-school efforts should really focus on teachers’ conditions of practice, including smaller class sizes, better supports for inclusion and diverse learning needs as well as ensuring teachers have adequate professional time.

“Improving conditions of practice means ensuring that teachers have more capacity to focus on student learning needs,” Ramsankar said. “This will have much more value than another team meeting analyzing PAT results or a professional development day on test preparation.” ❚

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