By Robert Laurie
AIMS’ Director of Education Policy

Would PEI Premier Robert Ghiz buy a car without a speedometer or a gas gauge? Of course not, because without them he couldn’t drive safely and reach his desired destination. Why then is he going to renege on the commitment to introduce provincial exams? This is most unfortunate because provincial exams are to education what speedometers and gas gauges are to driving.

Provincial exams create comparable benchmarks across the province. They help teachers clarify and better understand the provincial curriculum and adjust their student expectations. They allow teachers and administrators to identify best practices which can be shared amongst colleagues. They also allow finite resources to be targeted on identified problems and for progress in resolving those problems to be definitively measured.

Of course, no exam is perfect. Therefore, it is wrong to insist that a student’s performance on a provincial exam represents exactly that student’s ability. It is equally wrong, however, to argue that only teachers can “know” what a student’s ability is. Some curriculum outcomes, such as a student’s ability to present a project in front of the class, for example, cannot be assessed validly with provincial exams and are better assessed by teachers. But other curriculum outcomes are better assessed with exams appropriately designed by teachers, under the supervision of assessment experts.

Developing valid provincial exams normally takes up to one year. Expecting teachers to create classroom tests of this quality several times a year is unrealistic. Teachers struggle tremendously when creating tests. Too many questions are low level recall questions rather than higher level cognitive tasks. Don’t blame teachers. Creating valid tests is difficult and teachers are not trained to do so by Faculties of Education. The end result is classroom tests of questionable validity and low reliability. The best scenario would combine the strengths of teacher-made tests and provincial exams. This happens when teacher assigned grades are combined with provincial exam grades.

It is also important to remember that a strong provincial exam system represents an excellent professional development opportunity for teachers. Having teachers write exam questions in a group setting under the guidance of assessment experts gives them the hands-on experience needed to improve their classroom assessments. These sessions foster teacher discussions on the intent of the curriculum, the accompanying student expectations, and effective teaching strategies. Teachers in other provinces overwhelmingly report learning from such sessions. Ultimately, students stand to gain.

In electing to ignore the significant benefits that provincial exams would deliver to PEI, Premier Ghiz makes two unsupported claims. First, he doesn’t plan to spend money on testing until PEI reaches the national average in per pupil funding. This would only make sense if he could show that per pupil funding is related to student performance. He can’t, because it isn’t.

Second, Premier Ghiz also says there is no point in testing until there is money to fix the problems. Why does he assume every education problem needs money to be fixed? How much does it cost to share best practices in the lunch room, to engage parents in their child’s education, or to increase student expectations to levels comparable to that of other Canadian students?

Guesswork will not achieve sustainable improvement in the PEI education system anymore than it would help you avoid a speeding ticket on the transCanada. PEI’s education system ranked dead last in Canada and below the international average on the latest OECD assessment in 42 countries. Before hitting the accelerator, Premier Ghiz should ensure he equips this car with proper gauges or he risks leaving PEI students and teachers sitting on the side of the road, out of gas.

Robert Laurie is the Director of Education Policy with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent, non-partisan public policy think tank in Halifax, NS.