Wednesday, March 13, 2002
The Chronicle Herald

Of school tests and teacher union testiness

By Brian Lee Crowley

Many calls and e-mails arrived last week in the wake of Nova Scotia Teachers Union President Brian Forbes’ reply in this newspaper (click here for Brian Forbes’ article) to my last column. I laid out there the case for standardized testing in the public schools. Mr. Forbes, to the horror of many, appeared in his article to be quarrelling with the very notion of the usefulness of testing in the schools.

His critics were over-hasty. Re-read his piece, strip out the anti-testing rhetoric, and two things stand out. He says, first, that testing has its place in the public schools, and second, that the tests have to be interpreted in the context of the individual school.

Curiously, that is exactly what I said, and what a recent paper for my Institute argues in great detail (the paper, called “Testing and Accountability: The Keys to Educational Excellence in Atlantic Canada”, is available at

But there’s no denying that you have to dig through a lot of anti-testing dross before getting to these two pieces of common ground between Mr. Forbes and the pro-testing advocates. And the reason why all talk of testing raises the hackles of virtually every teacher union official in the land is not far to seek.

The union exists to promote the interests of teachers, a vital job it does well. But the authorities who run the public schools must have a different mission. They must set appropriate standards for public education and ensure those standards are met. To do so requires accountability within the school system. How can we, as taxpayers and parents, know if the school system is doing its job in the absence of rigorous testing that reveal where the curriculum is being effectively taught and students are learning what they should, and where the schools are letting down students, parents and taxpayers?

No one likes to be held accountable, but it is an unavoidable fact of life. Most of us are accountable to someone: employees to employers, managers to shareholders, governments to voters. That accountability is most effective when it is based on a clear set of measures, set out in advance, on what good performance looks like.

Teachers want accountability where their future is at stake. Recently the head of the Ontario teachers pension plan, Claude Lamoureux, was decrying what he sees as the inadequate accountability of companies and accountants. Mr. Lamoureux says he wants tougher reporting standards so that his pension fund, one of the biggest institutional investors in Canada, can more effectively judge the managers on whose performance the retirement income of Ontario teachers depends.

Many companies would dearly love investors to have to judge them solely on the information that managers and owners felt like supplying them. That is why generally accepted accounting standards, with all their flaws, have been developed, so that there would be a common standard of information available to everyone, and companies could be held to account when their performance lagged that of their peers. No doubt having these tough tests of performance takes some of the “joy” out of management, especially where managers are weak. But demanding performance guidelines protect shareholders while giving guidance to good managers about what excellence looks like. Few things give people as much joy as successfully reaching a tough standard of performance.

Schools are not companies, but the principle is the same. If standards and accountability are vital to the future of teachers’ pensions, think how much more important they are to the future of our children. However much we need information above and beyond test results, such results, from properly designed and administered tests, are the bedrock on which proper school accountability must rest.

Which leads me to a third point of agreement with Mr. Forbes. He notes places like Ontario test, but don’t perform particularly well on those tests. He’s right. But he concludes that therefore testing has little value. It really means testing alone is not enough.

Accountability is not just measuring performance, it is also holding people responsible for that performance. When school systems move beyond gathering of performance information to things like totally open enrolment, so that parents can choose their child’s school on the basis of its success in teaching effectively, then testing will be playing its role. Nor should such a system imply abandoning poorly performing schools. But in the absence of hard objective information about where schools are doing badly, how can public authorities know where or how to help?

The public schools exist to educate our children to standards set by the curriculum. Where it is possible to test whether that knowledge has been successfully imparted, we have a duty as a society to do so, and a duty to act on the results. Successful schools should be rewarded, poorly performing schools should be helped. Because when schools fail, it is the children that pay the price.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: [email protected]