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!