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!