No more Provincial Achievement Tests… now what?

There was a barrage of announcements during Education Week from the Education Minister that has the possibility of significant impact on education not only in Alberta but throughout North America. Of particular interest to parents and teachers, especially those teaching grades 3, 6 and 9 was the elimination of the Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) and the creation of a series of new computer-based tests known as Student Learning Assessments. The basic premise of these assessments is to provide a snapshot of each child’s strengths and weaknesses at the beginning of the school year and allow teachers to differentiate instruction early, based on these assessments in order to meet the needs of each student. However, the removal of these standardized tests does not automatically ensure that more impactful learning will occur in classrooms in Alberta. In fact, the question of, “Now what?” is even more pressing for education in Alberta.  

I have often heard that until the removal of the PATs, teachers lacked the full ability to be truly innovative and creative in the classroom. The current accountability pillar model and organizations like the Fraser Institute place significant pressure on teachers, schools and systems to “teach to the test.” I cannot imagine ranking teachers like the Fraser Institute ranks schools based on test scores given the diversity in our classrooms and the narrowness of factors. The provincial achievement tests did not support a changing educational system and were far from the goals of Inspiring Education. That said, the removal of the PATs eliminates all excuses not to change our pedagogy!  The work required to advocate for the elimination of the PATs will pale in comparison to the work required to ensure high quality, creative and innovative teaching without barriers! Government and the general public will be scrutinizing our work (and rightfully so) to ensure that the removal of this perceived accountability method actually facilitates greater learning.

Secondly, learning and not just achievement has to be better defined first by educators and then better communicated to parents. We have long been able to measure achievement but it has been much more difficult to measure learning. The definition of success for students cannot be simply tallied by the number of students who access university or achieve 80% or above. Our transition to a more inclusive environment in schools requires our definition of student success to be highly individualized. However, highly individualized does not mean that we no longer have any standards. In fact, I believe that our standards should be even higher in the learning context. High expectations for learning should be in place for all students and our ability to teach without the barriers of standardized tests should instill innovative practices at every level in education. But, we still must be able to demonstrate and clearly communicate learning to our parents, stakeholders and the general public. Parents have the right to know how their child is learning and comparative factors will always need to be present.

I applaud the decision of the Ministry, regardless of whether it was an election promise by the government or not. It provides another catalyst for educational transformation. But like any catalyst, it will cease to exist if we choose not to act upon it quickly. External accountability has been replaced by internal responsibility. Every classroom, every school and every system must now fully engage in highly interactive teaching practices; must take an approach of innovation and must simply…ACT! It is now time for all educators to take on this responsibility and utilize their collective, informed professional judgment to make sure that the “now what” is the beginning of the educational system that will propel our students into their future and not our past!

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  1. This has been a recurring theme this weekend at ConnectEd Canada in Calgary. It’s clear, based on the educators that were present this weekend, that there is a lot of excitement about the shift in education right now. As you’ve said, now we need to push ourselves to make learning truly authentic for our students by breaking down the walls of our classrooms. Inquiry has been a huge theme this weekend, as it is central to the success of the Calgary Science School, which is a model that allows students to discover what they are passionate about in a supported environment. We can now make learning meaningful to each student in our classroom by creating an inclusive environment.

  1. […] Furthermore if province-wide assessments (e.g. provincial exams) are the norm then how will they be altered to align with the curriculum transformations? How will what we measure affect how we measure? And what value will the “measure” have for post-secondary institutions? Is it a matter of valuing what is meaningful and not just measurable? We value what we measure. We measure what we value. And can we learn from the parallel forward-thinking curriculum re-design happening in Alberta and the re-purposing of that province’s assessments? […]

  2. […] Two months ago, before Alberta Education announced that the province will be phasing out grade 3, 6 and 9 Provincial Achievement Tests, I was approached by a couple of parents at my school. Initially, I wasn’t sure how to respond to their question. They wanted to know if what they had heard was true. “As parents, do we have the right”, they asked, “to excuse our children from writing provincial achievement tests.” I’ve known the answer to this question for years but quite honestly have been reluctant to openly share it with parents. The odd time a parent had asked me about “excusing their child” I’ve encouraged them not to “for the good of the school.” A great deal of emphasis has been placed on Provincial Achievement Tests as the primary measure of student and school success in our province and each time we excuse a student it negatively reflects the overall school and jurisdictional results. The idea has always been to get as many students writing as possible. I applaud our superintendent Chris Smeaton for encouraging educators to maintain a focus on learning and student engagement instead of PATs. “Excellent learning is the important thing”, he says, “then the assessments will take care of themselves.” He has blogged about Provincial Achievement Tests here and here. […]

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