In Brief: AIMS is a leading proponent of standardized testing in public schools, and it appears governments are finally getting the message. As New Brunswick reconsiders its options, AIMS acting President Charles Cirtwill points out that the top performing provinces in Canada all have standardized testing regimes. He says as an example, using data from testing has helped Newfoundland and Labrador make dramatic improvements.

by Quentin Casey

FREDERICTON – As New Brunswick looks to reform its education system, the Liberal government should invest more heavily in standardized testing to track student progress, say experts who call an increase in testing critical if the province is to rise from the cellar in national education rankings.

A recent international education survey delivered dismal results for New Brunswick. The numbers, released through the Programme for International Student Assessment, showed the province continues to score significantly lower than the national average in math, science and reading tests.

The 2006 study found the province recorded the lowest reading scores in Canada. As well, New Brunswick tied for second-last place in the math category and recorded the lowest general science scores in the country.

Peter Cowley of the Fraser Institute, a think-tank, said New Brunswick should follow the example of the top provinces across CanadaAlberta, Ontario and British Columbia.

Those areas have well-established internal testing systems employed annually, he said. Alberta conducts achievement test in Grades 3, 6, 9 and 12.

“They focus teachers’ attention on the outcomes that are intended,” said Cowley, the Institute’s director of school performance studies. “It provides a focus that is very useful. Alberta has had that for a while and is consistently above the national average on all International Student Assessment tests.”

British Columbia, another high-ranking province, runs similar tests in Grades 4, 7 and during the high school years. In 1999, Ontario introduced testing schemes for reading, writing and math in Grades 3 and 6. Math is tested again in Grade 9 and literacy levels in Grade 10. Cowley said the moves resulted in noticeable improvements.

The practice allows for detailed report cards on individual schools and gives parents and educators early indication of lagging results. According to Cowley, New Brunswick should follow along.

“That seems to be the one common thread between the higher performing provinces,” he said.

“They have province-wide assessment systems in place and have done so for a while.”

It is not necessary for the province to build a testing scheme from scratch, he said. The Shawn Graham government can simply do as other Canadian jurisdictions have: copy a successful system from another province. Yukon officials, Cowley said, adopted elements of both the Alberta and B.C. systems.

“If I was in a poor performing province I’d ask the minister, ‘Why don’t we just adopt Alberta curriculum?'”

“What is it that is so specific to the New Brunswick situation that you have to have your own curriculum? Why not just buy Alberta‘s and do the testing and see what happens? Maybe you’ll be the second Alberta. It seems to me to make perfect sense and would probably be cheaper.”

Charles Cirtwill agreed that testing regimes are a key fixture of the top provinces. The acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a Halifax-based think-tank, pointed to the rise of Newfoundland and Labrador‘s education system in the last six to seven years.

That province has climbed from the back to middle of the pack in Canadian education rankings, thanks in part to a new-found commitment to data collection and student testing. New Brunswick does run provincial assessments.

For example, reading and writing abilities are measured in Grades 2 and 4. Math skills are measured in Grade 5 while science capabilities are gauged in Grade 6.

Critics, however, say there is a need to be more specific and thorough in the process.

Education Minister Kelly Lamrock agreed. He contended the system has long tracked tests and results of little value.

“The government was committed before to using testing (where) the data was unusable by principals and teachers,” he said Friday. “The key is finding what works and sharing it around the system.”

Lamrock has promised changes, most notably in his new education plan, ‘When kids come first.’ Lamrock pointed to forthcoming assessments of young children, to reveal school readiness and literacy rates.

As well, future tests will track which schools and teachers are producing the greatest improvements in their students.

Cirtwill is optimistic about the province’s ability to improve the system, citing the positive attitude of local educators and Lamrock himself.

“They’re not trying to hide under a rock. They’ve recognized they’ve got a problem and they’re open about talking about it,” he said. “If I was a New Brunswick parent, I’d feel a lot better about the possibility of solving this problem than in any other province in Atlantic Canada.”