Ignoring Einstein can be the right thing to do

by Bobby O’Keefe

The Canadian Teacher’s Federation 2008 desk calendar features an education related quote each month. November’s quote is from Albert Einstein: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” The message – standardized tests are not a meaningful way to assess student learning. Among the arguments included in the calendar’s explanation was the statement, “Test data do little to provide real help to students, teachers, parents, or schools.”

Thankfully the New Brunswick Department of Education didn’t get a copy of the calendar. Or even better, the department is just ignoring it in releasing their new school report cards featuring results of all provincial assessments taken by New Brunswick students in the past school year.

I generally agree with Einstein’s quote, but it doesn’t apply here. Properly designed standardized tests are an excellent (though certainly not the only) means of assessing how well students are meeting goals. On top of that, the assertion that test data do little to provide help is dead wrong.

The New Brunswick Teachers’ Association newsletter from earlier this fall even acknowledges that in commenting on the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The lead story in the newsletter, written by the NBTA’s Director of curriculum suggested, among other things, that writing a PISA practice test is “a tremendous professional development activity” for teachers and that teachers should “incorporate items like those found on the PISA tests” in their own assessments.

Additionally, recent research is clear that publishing school level test results, as the New Brunswick School Report Card does, improves school performance. The OECD reported in its analysis of the 2006 PISA results that making results public at the school level was the only accountability policy examined that had a significant positive impact on a school’s PISA results. More importantly, the impact remained significant even when socio-economic and demographic factors were considered.

We even have a great practical example of that right here in Atlantic Canada. Newfoundland and Labrador’s online school profile website has performance data for every school in that province, including provincial assessments, teacher assigned grades, and more, with comparisons to board and provincial level results. Since PISA testing started in 2000, Newfoundland and Labrador moved from the bottom of the pack in Canada to the middle in 2006, outperforming the other Atlantic provinces despite a measurable socio-economic disadvantage. The other Atlantic Provinces, including New Brunswick, languish at the bottom of PISA’s provincial rankings.

New Brunswick’s education department deserves a huge pat on the back from students, parents, and people across the province for this practice of openness. That said, it is only a beginning. Now that the results are available, schools, parents, and students need to be given the power to use the information accordingly – and some of the other OECD findings point out the best ways to do it.

First, schools did better when empowered to act on their results. When schools had authority over where money was spent, when they didn’t have to beg and plead to the board or province for money to spend on programs, and when principals and teachers could choose what worked best for their students instead of generic programs handed to them, they performed better.

Second, schools performed better when parents and students were empowered to act on school performance results. When more parents and students could choose from a variety of schools or programs, rather than being forced into a government school, schools performed better.

Third, schools were better at levelling the bar for disadvantaged students when they avoided streaming practices such as pre-requisites for acceptance to programs and separating students of varying abilities. In other words, disadvantaged students kept up with their advantaged peers when all educational options were available to all students.

How do you accomplish this? Allowing all students equal access to all schools, including private schools is one way. Open boundaries for government schools is another. And while some open boundaries exist in New Brunswick already, at least in theory, ensuring parents know that this option is available to them is another thing entirely.

No matter the reason the department chose to ignore Einstein, or at least the Canadian Teachers Federation’s bastardization of his quote, they have made a step in the right direction. But New Brunswick students and parents shouldn’t let them stop there by any means. It is time to push for more. Now that the information is out there, give everyone the power to use it.

Bobby O’Keefe is Senior Policy Analyst with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.