In Brief: In this front page story in the Times and Transcript, NB Education Minister Kelly Lamrock says AIMS is justified to criticize the lack of provincial testing in anglophone high schools in his province. He says things will change.

By Aloma Jardine
Times & Transcript Staff

Education Minister Kelly Lamrock says criticism of New Brunswick’s lack of provincial exams by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) is justified, but says upcoming announcements may remedy the situation.

AIMS slammed the province’s English-language school system yesterday as it released its sixth annual report card on Atlantic Canadian high schools.

AIMS executive vice-president Charles Cirtwill says the province took a step backwards when it eliminated provincial high school exams in English-language schools.

Students in French-language high schools still do provincial exams.

Cirtwill says studies have shown a direct link between a country’s achievement on international assessments and the publication of performance results at the school level and questioned why the province isn’t taking that cue and making a return to assessments when it keeps harping on its low results and the need to improve them.

He says assessments help improve the system because they show what is working and not working and whether or not the money being spent is having the desired impact.

“I think they are right,” Lamrock says. “Indeed assessment is key to making improvements in literacy. What governments did for a long time is they never measured results, they issued reforms that told teachers how to teach. What we are trying is a culture shift where we are not telling teachers how to teach, but are measuring who gets the results.”

Lamrock expects to make announcements regarding assessment when details of the education budget are revealed in the legislature.

“I felt the government was wrong to cut the evaluation department in 2005 and I am looking forward in the very near future to announcing how we will set that mistake right,” he says.

Cirtwill says it isn’t always easy for governments to spend money on assessment.

“The difficulty they have is every million dollars they move from spending on schools to spending on a better data set to better manage schools, they get the typical response. A million dollars translates into five teachers in the classroom,” he says. “But if you driving a ship this big, do you want to know what’s ahead of you, in which direction you’re going, or do you just put the blinders on and have three more deck hands?”

Norval McConnell, high school supervisor for District 2, which administers English-language schools in southeastern New Brunswick, says high school exams do not necessarily do much to help individual students, but they do offer feedback on how the system as a whole is doing.

He says individual schools also used to look closely at provincial exam results compared to the marks their teachers were awarding to see if they were marking students too high, too low, or right on target.

Whatever renewed assessments Lamrock introduces may not look like what went before. He says the first priority is to assess students in the lower grades so results can be used to make a difference for individual students. He also wants to assess students frequently enough and in such a way that the province can measure which schools are doing the best at turning around struggling readers, for example, or helping gifted children reach their full potential.

The AIMS report card ranks all schools in the province using a number of criteria, including how well students do in high school and after high school, attendance rates, drop out rates, and the number of students who move on to post-secondary studies.

Grand Manan Community School was the top-ranked of the province’s English-language schools this year with an A- grade, while École Marie-Gaétane in Kedgwick was the top-ranked French-language high school, also with an A-, the only two schools in the province to score in the A range.

In southeastern New Brunswick, Petitcodiac Regional School was the top-ranked English-language school in seventh spot with a B , while École Mathieu-Martin in Dieppe was the top-ranked French-language school, ranked 10th with a B-.

New Brunswick had the dubious distinction of having the only school in the Atlantic provinces to score an F.

Lack of assessment data wasn’t the only criticism AIMS levied at the province.

Cirtwill also says the province needs to give its schools more autonomy.

“Countries giving more responsibility to schools tend to perform better,” he says. “Give the schools the power and hold them accountable for the results.”

Improving results, giving teachers room to innovate and share their findings with others, and creating schools that respond to the needs of their communities are all things Lamrock has emphasized since he released his education plan almost a year ago.”Talk is cheap,” Cirtwill says.

It’s one thing to say you want to do something and another to make it happen, and though programs like the Innovative Learning Fund and the community schools initiative may be steps in the right direction, Cirtwill questions how well they will work.

“The innovation fund is interesting, but the challenge is going to be how much real authority do the people spending the innovation fund have? And certainly with the community schools initiative, that is a very interesting exercise,” he says. “The challenge you are going to have with those is they are being grafted on a system that is not being fundamentally changed, so you are trying to improve your results without improving the way you do business.

“It is going to be harder to get results out of those two interesting ideas and a couple of other interesting things you are doing in New Brunswick, because you’re not making fundamental change.”

While Lamrock agrees schools with more autonomy coupled with measurement with real consequences have done better, he says AIMS’s assertion that decentralization is always better isn’t necessarily so.

“I would gently say the model they hold up as having worked in Edmonton can’t just be transposed to New Brunswick without any changes at all,” he says.

In Edmonton all schools are given a budget and decision-making is taken at the school level.

Lamrock says he has a problem with downloading every decision to principals, including how much copier paper to order.

“I want them to be innovating in areas like literacy and numeracy and not purchasing,” he says.

McConnell says District 2 likes to think it is already working in innovative ways to address the needs of its students.

“We’re not afraid to get off the beaten track,” he says, using the implementation of intensive French as an example of a program the district ran long before everyone else got on the bandwagon.

Cirtwill did commend the province for at least being willing to ask the hard questions.

He also says improving education is not a matter of spending more money.

He says studies have found some of the top performing countries are moderate spenders, while top spenders like the United States and Norway don’t do very well.

Around the world everyone is spending more on education, but student results haven’t really improved.

“It is how you spend, not how much you spend that matters,” he says.