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Feb 26

Chris Smeaton

Provincial Achievement Tests

In the Province of Alberta, students in grades 3, 6, and 9 write Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT’s) on a yearly basis. Grade 3 students write tests in only Language Arts and Mathematics, while students in grades 6 and 9 complete the previous two plus Science and Social Studies. These tests were initially instituted as a check on curriculum but they have morphed into something that is causing much discussion in education circles. Today, PAT’s are used by some organizations to rank schools and by Alberta Education as part of their accountability system to evaluate schools and systems. The Accountability Pillar is not solely based on these standardized tests but the results certainly impacts the color coding received in division and/or school reports.

A couple of weeks ago at our Council of School Council Chair/Board meeting, I was asked to provide responses to our parents regarding PAT’s. Their questions revolved around the following concerns:

  • How important are PAT’s?
  • What are they actually used for?
  • Why are PAT results used as part of the student’s final mark or as their final exam?
  • Why is there so much stress placed on students who write PAT’s?

Unfortunately in the current accountability system, PAT’s are very important. The current mindset is that good results demonstrates a good school while the opposite is true given poor results. Educators, and I would suggest most parents would agree that there are far more methods to evaluate a student, a school or a system than just PAT’s. In the last 10 exam reports that I have prepared, I have always included the following statement, “Achievement and diploma exams only assess part of what students learn throughout the year. The best descriptor of student learning comes from a thorough and broad-based assessment program that teachers maintain during the school year.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about accountability and I’ve said that numerous times before. And although we need to make some significant changes to truly transform education, we still must maintain and articulate some sort of standards. I just don’t see how provincial achievement  tests can be seen as the premier measure of student learning or system success. In a world where we are trying to engage our learners and build 21st century competencies, bubble tests just don’t cut it!

It is always my intention to try and reduce the pressure on staff regarding provincial exams. My reasoning is that student learning is far more involved than any one test can measure and my own belief (that is also supported by research) that by and large, good teaching will achieve good results. If we continue to focus on the instructional practices in the classroom, at honing our craft as educators, then the results will take care of themselves. This was made crystal clear in a conversation with Tony Wagner at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. However, it is a difficult mindset for our administrators and our teaching staff not to focus on these tests when they are ranked by external institutes and rated with a color coded report card.

So why don’t parents just excuse their children from writing these exams as they legally have the ability to do so? Simple- it impacts the results for the school and system as excused writers count as zero in the calculations. This can be extremely significant and potentially damaging, especially if a small cohort is writing. Those students excused automatically bring down the “rating”  without recourse. The focus on those external sources is also why teachers and/or schools use the PAT result for part or all of the final grade. Some students may not necessarily be as motivated to study for a test that means nothing for their own mark. It is a vicious circle!

Maybe the problem is we don’t or we can’t define what student learning truly is or looks like. But I am convinced that where we need to go in education will never achieved by continued infactuation on these tests. Creativity, innovation and collaboration, all necessary for our 21st century can’t be accurately assessed in a written test setting only. Student choice in learning and the ability to go deeper into the curriculum will continue to be at odds with a standardized test of this nature. 21st century learning deserves 21st century schools, 21st century curriculum and 21st century assessment. And furthermore… our 21st century students deserve it!

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  1. George Couros

    Thanks for your thoughts Chris. The PAT’s are a tricky subject because most people know that they are how many schools are measured, but simply because there is nothing really better. What I do appreciate is you coming out publicly as the leader of your school division and sharing that the “bubble tests” don’t accurately measure the positive teaching and learning environments that we are trying to create in schools. By simply saying this, you will definitely free up your teachers to do the important work of preparing kids to be positive citizens that will make an impact in their future, as well as their present.

    Thinking out loud, my question would be, what way can we report to our public to show that our schools are successful? The stories from our kids would make a huge impact on many, but often “numbers” are what people will look at, especially those that may have no emotional connection to school (ie. politicians with no children in a school or district). What is the balance of qualitative and quantitative data that does not necessarily consist of the current model of PAT exams?

    Thanks again for your visionary leadership and your willingness to take risks out in the open!

    1. Chris Smeaton

      Thanks George for your comments. I would agree that we need to find some alternative ways of measuring student learning. In the early years I think that can be accomplished with diagnostic testing and then some sort of baseline testing to show improvement. Eventually, if we get to the point where teachers are held in as high esteem as those in Finland, the teacher’s assessments will suffice. Unfortunately, we are not there yet. I also believe that our transition rates to post secondary, succcessful transition to the work place and high school completion rates can be positive measures of success. Our conversations about what success looks like needs to occur with our staff, our parents, our students and our community.

  2. Linda VandenBerg

    I agree with George. It’s not too often a superintendent comes out with strong views regarding PATs. I also agree that there are many other ways to demonstrate success. I do think that we can show what learning looks like beyond the PATs and that we do.

    Every time students make a presentation or do a project, they demonstrate their learning. Performance assessments are a great way to do this in the classroom. Our school is working with the Alberta Assessment Consortium to refine our process and we’ve had first hand demonstrations of what true learning looks like. It’s sometimes quite messy, but definitely exciting. You will be able to see some samples on the AAC website once we have completed our projects.

    The ministry of Alberta Education is demanding that we teach to the 21st century student – it’s time they accept our professional judgement in our assessment when we grade our students according to their own criteria, beyond the multiple choice test.

    Thank you, Chris, for speaking up for our new generation of learners.

    1. Chris Smeaton
      Chris Smeaton

      Thanks Linda for your comments! I think using performance assessments is another example of how we as a system can demonstrate student learning. In most jobs, there is theory and practice components. Performance assessments meet the practice component. Alberta Education has made some positive initial steps with Inspiring Education and the action agenda. It is now time for all of us to begin to put into practice the vision for every Alberta student. It won’t be easy but it is definitely needed!!!

  3. Charlie Bouchard

    Thoughtful post Chris, thanks for sharing.

    I’m watching the AB ED Webinar for parents on Inclusive Education. Im wondering – how does Provincial testing align with the Province’s vision (which I fully support) for a quality education for all students?

    Charlie Bouchard

    1. Chris Smeaton
      Chris Smeaton

      Hi Charlie, I don’t think in the current form it does align with the province’s vision. However, I also don’t believe that you have to throw everything out but look for balance in all that we do. We just need to ensure that PAT’s are used as they were intended and no longer rating and ranking machines!

  1. Parents Said No to the Test | Educational Leadership in the 21st Century

    […] assessments will take care of themselves.” He has blogged about Provincial Achievement Tests here and […]

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