Family life

Does standardized testing really evaluate your kid's learning?

Controversial across Canada, standardized testing may be more harmful than helpful­—and some say it doesn’t evaluate what’s most important to kids’ success.

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It happens every year like clockwork: As teachers prepare their students for provincial standardized tests, the kids’ anxiety ratchets up. Tanisha Rajanayagam remembers her son’s nervousness when he took Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) grade three test last year. “Trehan got a little anxious and teary-eyed,” says Rajanayagam. “He was concerned about finishing it and doing well.”

Lisa Jorgensen says her nine-year-old daughter felt stressed, too. “Millie commented on several occasions that she was nervous about the EQAO because she was worried about ‘failing,’” says the Ontario mom. Both parents say their child’s worries—and their own—were relieved after talking about it with their child’s teacher. “Once he was assured by his teacher that he only had to do his best and that there was no way to really study for this test, he felt much better,” recalls Rajanayagam.

But it’s not always so easy to calm down students—and many say these tests aren’t worth the anxiety. A primary school teacher at a York Region District School Board school that routinely performs well on EQAO tests, Maria Black* has marked the grade three test and administered a grade six one—and, she says, the results don’t mean a damn thing.

“There’s pressure for every person involved: It distracts the kids because they know they have to do well on this test; there’s pressure on the parents; there’s pressure on the teachers from administrators who want their school to look good and who get pressure from on high. Everyone’s focused on this test score instead of all the stuff the students have learned all year and how they can express their learning in so many other ways,” she says.

Now a common practice in every province and territory, standardized testing remains controversial. While proponents argue that these exams help ensure everyone has a sufficient grasp of the subject matter in important areas like math, reading and science, critics question the usefulness of the data, and whether gathering it is worth all the distraction and stress it causes.

In addition to educational leaders calling for a re-examination of these tests, researchers are working on new—and better—ways to evaluate kids’ abilities, and several provinces are already changing the way they’re testing.

While Canada has a long history of across-the-board intelligence and comprehension testing, the current mode of standardized testing came over the border from the United States, in the late 1980s and early ’90s. As education budgets shrunk, these assessments were heralded as a means for parents, school boards and taxpayers to see in a clear way that they were getting good value for their money. In the US, things have gone further than they ever have in Canada; there, “high-stakes” testing has become the norm, with even a school’s funding tied to its standardized-testing score.

North of the border, the purpose of these tests is to ensure schools (and students) are performing at an acceptable level. Each province has its own version: there’s the Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) in BC, Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) in Alberta, Provincial Assessment Program in Manitoba, Nova Scotia Assessments, and so on.

Parents are hungry for data
Despite the controversy surrounding standardized testing, young parents routinely look to the results when they’re buying a family home. Black says she’s irked when her friends use standardized-test results to pick a good school for their kids or buy a house in a top school district. “A good test score does not make a good school—or a bad school, for that matter,” she says. “It doesn’t tell you what your child knows or doesn’t know—just whether they can write a test and follow instructions. It doesn’t mean anything else.”

(Teachers and education experts instead recommend parents look at whether the school has a tight-knit community and good teachers­—and the best way to figure that out is to visit the school and talk to the parent council.)

The results are equally enticing for parents whose kids are taking the tests. Jessie Zhao says BC’s standardized test delivers exactly what it’s supposed to: an across-the-board standard assessment on how your child is doing in specific areas. While report cards and instructor feedback are helpful, she says, these vary from teacher to teacher. “The tests also show where teachers need to improve,” notes the Vancouver mom of two.

Even Rajanayagam says she’s glad to have this information. “It is nice to know where your child’s level of learning is in comparison to others of the same age bracket,” she explains. However, teachers warn parents to be careful about using these tests to compare their kid to others—many factors are at play here, and some students just have a bad day on test day.

Standardized tests don’t reflect classroom practice
While Black recognizes that the test teaches some important skills—even just learning how to write an exam will pay dividends in high school and university—she says the EQAO is actually more than a simple distraction. In fact, it goes against everything she and her colleagues normally practise in the classroom.

Every day, teachers across the country work to create an environment where students are encouraged to learn, and demonstrate their learning, in their own ways—whether that means giving a speech, creating a drama, penning a song, drawing a picture or writing an essay—known in educational circles as “differentiated instruction.” But come standardized-test time, these same students are asked to express themselves in very parochial ways—silently, at a desk, through an old-school written test.

The tests are especially hard on students with learning disabilities, says Black, who’s administered the test to a grade six special education class. Though certain accommodations are made, she says they’re not enough—and nowhere close to what’s the norm in her day-to-day classes.

“Usually, I would find a way to help them understand, but with the EQAO, we can only read it out loud to them, and if they don’t get it, our only option is to read it again,” she explains. Black notes that she had to teach her special education students strategies for answering questions, such as getting one idea across clearly, as opposed to three detailed pieces of evidence, and coming back to difficult questions. “I spent a lot of time just trying to boost their confidence after they tried and tried and couldn’t do it independently,” she says.

Are standardized test results even useful?
The data on the effectiveness of standardized testing is mixed, at best. Internationally, Finland’s public schools routinely rank as the best in the world—without standardized testing. Yet, a rigorous testing regime helped South Korea move up quickly in international education rankings. So can they help? Cast in the best light, standardized tests are effective for assessing what they test, although teachers maintain that the testing and scoring methods make them effectively useless.

Charles Ungerleider, a former BC deputy minister of education, and now an education consultant and managing partner with Directions Evidence and Policy Research Group, says that while standardized tests have helped teachers and administrators looking to improve instruction in specific areas and have also pushed them to improve teaching methods, the results mostly mirror grades on kids’ report cards. But, he adds, report cards “address a broader range of tasks than standardized tests, providing a more comprehensive appraisal of student performance.”

Some educational experts maintain that the exams are most notable for what they don’t test. Yong Zhao, a professor at the University of Oregon who researches global educational policy, raised eyebrows earlier this year when he shared his thoughts with BC’s Ministry of Education, telling it that the FSA “destroys” both parents and schools. (He’s since softened his stance, saying the tests “mislead.”) Raised in China, where high-stakes standardized testing has been the norm, Yong Zhao says the FSA serves only to engender homogeneity, creating kids—and a society—that thinks the same things, in the same way.

The time teachers spend preparing students to take these tests also steals time from building valuable skills. Research indicates that non-cognitive qualities—such as resiliency, creativity, social intelligence, motivation, curiosity and critical thinking—are integral to success in life, says Yong Zhao. He adds that very few real-life challenges resemble standardized tests, and focusing on topics that stimulate kids’ passions and interests should be prioritized above recitation of facts. “They need to be able to apply knowledge and make real things,” he says, noting that this is how a society stimulates a creative class and produces writers, filmmakers and entrepreneurs. Yong Zhao recommended that BC eliminate the FSA altogether. “The economy changes so fast. We need new ideas, diversity, creativity and entrepreneurial thinking,” he says.

Daniel Laitsch, an associate professor of education at Simon Fraser University in BC who has studied the FSA, agrees. He says the FSA and other similar tests exclude some of the most important measures of a student’s health, well­-being and overall learning—everything from the arts to physical education to the social sciences.

Making broad claims based on isolated assessments is dangerous, adds Laitsch. And it’s just not a good expenditure of time and resources—after all, millions are allocated, and up to a month in the classroom is often spent preparing specifically for the test. It all creates a body of knowledge about schools and our students that Laitsch says is actually more of a façade. “Do we have good schools in BC, based on the FSA results? Well, we can’t really answer that question.”

Overhauling standardized testing
With all this doubt, some provinces are exploring other options. In BC, where the unpopular FSA has prompted the BC Teachers’ Federation to send a letter to parents recommending they exempt their kids from the exam, a pilot program that’s underway could change the face of provincial student testing. The K­–12 Innovation Strategy is exploring a new suite of assessment tools focused on “personalized” learning. Each school in the program will be partnered with a post-secondary institution, which will provide support and research both quantitative and qualitative change—that is, what’s working and what’s not.

Alberta, meanwhile, is currently replacing its 30-year-old PATs with the new, and some say, improved, Student Learning Assessments. While this test still focuses on math and literacy, it’s computer based, and it’s administered at the start of the year rather than the end, to help teachers understand their students’ strengths and needs so they can plan individualized instruction.

It’s a good start, says Mark Ramsankar, a former special education teacher who now serves as president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association—which has long opposed the PAT. Ramsankar says the association supports the new exam, noting its usefulness as a diagnostic tool. “To support student learning, we need to know where they’re starting from,” he says.

Even as these changes are happening, a new project could transform the way Canadian schools assess students. Ungerleider is consulting with the national non-profit People for Education, which, with funding help from Ontario’s Ministry of Education, the R. Howard Webster Foundation and others, is bringing together a number of experts in a major project to explore a better way for Canadian schools to assess students.

Consulting with more than 4,000 parents, the project—called Measuring What Matters—is seeking assessments in such areas as citizenship, creativity and innovation, physical and mental health, and social and emotional learning—those important factors in student success. “Parents want a well-rounded education for their youngsters, and they want these other dimensions to receive the same kind of consideration as literacy and numeracy,” says Ungerleider, noting that while preliminary findings will be available this year, the final report won’t be finished for another two to three years.

As for Maria Black, until Ontario comes up with something better than the EQAO assessments, she says she’ll consider the little-known option to have her son opt out of the exam. “To me, the test has no meaning,” she says. “An amazing school has everything to do with teachers and students and parents working together—and it has nothing to do with just a simple test score.”

*name has been changed

A version of this article appeared in our September 2015 issue with the headline, “Raising the standard,” p. 57.

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