This is a legacy provincial website of the ATA. Visit our new website here.

Viewpoints: It’s time to clear the data smog

November 22, 2016 Mark Ramsankar

While we have yet to see the government follow through on its commitment to end the provincial achievement testing program, equally frustrating is the education ministry’s growing love affair with international assessments. Dressed up as a “research agenda,” these do nothing to address the systemic obstacles to student learning that we already know plenty about.

This is one of the main reasons why Provincial Executive Council recently passed a resolution stating “that until such time as the ministerial review of international benchmarking tests is completed, we urge our members to protest to the minister their forced participation in these international benchmarking activities.”

Council’s concern regarding the proliferation of international assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), or more recently the International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS), is not primarily directed at any one assessment, but rather at their growing frequency and ministry efforts to rationalize these activities as research.

For years the Alberta Teachers’ Association has called on the government to collaborate with the profession on a co-ordinated approach to research, but instead we continue to see officials hitch the government’s wagon to myriad international benchmarking programs that tell us little that we don’t already know.

The most recent example of the ministry’s unfocused research agenda is ICILS. Ministry officials have claimed that this $300,000 survey, which will involve 150 junior high schools, will help address the question “How do we ensure that Albertans will have the skills and competencies they need to succeed in a global economy?”

In the context of my international experience and networks, my response is that the government already has enough information to answer this question. Indeed, no other jurisdiction in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has more large-scale, system-level testing than Alberta, yet we continue to see officials justifying the production of “data smog” with the expenditure of scarce resources, diminishing instructional time and increasing teacher workload.

The data smog produced through the proliferation of international assessments reflects the growing influence of organizations and think tanks that continue to generate narrow indicators of performance in the guise of research and performance measurement. For example, the OECD is the most prominent player in this regard, with the United Nations, the World Bank, the European Commission, as well as private companies and consulting entities also being important actors.

Still, it is the OECD’s PISA programme — which measures the reading, mathematical and scientific literacy of 15-year-olds around the world — that has become the equivalent of what respected researcher Pasi Sahlberg has coined “the educational equivalent of a GPS (global positioning system), that aims to tell policymakers where their education systems place in a global grid and how to move to desired destinations.”

In response to the datafication of public education driven by the misdirected research agendas of government, including the frenzy of international assessments, the Association has undertaken a number of initiatives. For example, this past May, the 2016 Annual Representative Assembly passed motion 3-67, which urged the minister of education to withdraw Alberta from participation in future iterations of PISA, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and the Progress in
International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

To support this effort, Association staff are also working with international researchers on the publication of a book examining the collateral impacts of international assessments such as PISA. This publication, due out in early 2017, will describe how governments increasingly rely on international assessments but fail to understand their considerable limitations and real costs. The book will reflect the growing consensus among international researchers that the “drive- by” media reporting of international assessments and rankings too often distracts public policy-makers from addressing long-standing fundamental systemic problems such as poverty and decaying social infrastructures that would ensure success for all students.

Over the long term, the Association continues to focus on the big picture — working with government to develop an enhanced approach to student and system performance reporting and public assurance. Of course such a process would include some international benchmarking, but only in those cases where the profession would help determine their use.

Ultimately, public confidence will be enhanced not by the haphazard administration of piecemeal large-scale assessments, but through the use of measures that reflect the deeper purposes of public education. Drawing on proven research and our international partnerships, I continue to encourage the minister and the government to work together with the profession to develop such an approach. ❚

Also In This Issue