Standardized tests only one measure of school success

By Brian Forbes

ACCORDING to Brian Lee Crowley, the measure of a good school is very simple: One need only look at standardized test scores (Feb. 27 column). According to an “expert” cited by Mr. Crowley, the virtue of standardized tests is that, properly designed, “they yield the same score for students across the province whose performance is the same.” (And how do we know that their performance is the same? Presumably because they got the same test scores.) Thus, we can confidently base conclusions about the performance of schools on such test results.

Is there an appropriate place for standardized testing in schools? Of course. Properly designed and interpreted, as one of many sources of information, such tests can help to identify strengths and weaknesses in a system, and indicate strategies for improvement. But to suggest, as Mr. Crowley does, that in themselves standardized test results are a reliable measure for comparing the overall effectiveness of particular schools is simplistic, to say the least. For example, it has recently been reported that the dropout rate in Nova Scotia has fallen from 18 per cent to 10 per cent over the last decade. It can easily be seen that such a development might impact negatively on test scores. If such is the case, should we be claiming a success or lamenting a failure?

The mandate of schools and the range of curricular outcomes are much broader than anything that can possibly be measured by any standardized instrument. One of the best statements of the goals of public education is contained in the Report to UNESCO of the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century (also known as the Delors Report, 1996).

The report speaks of “four pillars of education”:

Learning to know, by combining a sufficiently broad general knowledge with the opportunity to work in depth on a smaller number of subjects; also entails learning to learn;

Learning to do, in order to acquire not only an occupational skill but also the competence to deal with many situations and work in teams;

Learning to live together, in a spirit of respect for the values of pluralism, mutual understanding and peace;

Learning to be, so as to better develop one’s personality and be able to act with ever greater autonomy, judgment and personal responsibility.

Implied in Mr. Crowley’s position is the idea that schools should narrow their focus to “learning to know” (and maybe some of what is involved in “learning to do”), since that is all that can be measured and reported in the form of standardized test results. Without diminishing the importance assigned to literacy, numeracy and subject knowledge, it must be recognized that achievement in these areas is attained in the context of an enterprise that aims for much more, and that a balanced assessment of a school’s effectiveness requires consideration of its success in constructing all four pillars.

Mr. Crowley airily dismisses the idea that an emphasis on standardized test results will lead to “teaching to the test” and consequent narrowing of the curriculum. Yet that is exactly what has happened in jurisdictions where his approach has been tried. Where reputations, funding and staffing decisions are dependent solely on standardized test scores, the focus immediately goes to the need to maintain or improve scores. Other objectives become secondary, exclusion of disadvantaged and high-needs students becomes a survival tactic, subtle and not-so-subtle methods of cheating are found, anxiety abounds, the joy of teaching and learning evaporates, and ultimately the whole exercise becomes meaningless and counterproductive.

As for the improvement of learning that supposedly will accompany an intensified testing regime, Mr. Crowley may want to consider the fact that statistically, Ontario did no better than Nova Scotia in the Student Achievement Indicators Program (SAIP) tests, nor in math and science scores in the recently reported OECD PISA results. How long will it take for the benefits of Ontario’s increased testing program to appear? When will Ontario taxpayers see the payoff for the vastly increased investment in this aspect of the province’s education program? Or is it possible that better uses might have been found for the money and class time consumed?

Mr. Crowley does pay lip service to the idea of “careful design” of tests and “proper interpretation” of results. But he rather cavalierly glosses over or ignores factors such as socio-economic background, funding levels, ethnicity, physical environment, administrative anomalies and inclusion of special-needs students that might affect results. He also appears to place undue faith in the validity of tests. (Last year’s Nova Scotia Grade 12 physics exam was so bad that the superintendent of the Halifax regional school board requested that the January results be ignored and the exam not be given in June. His letter to the deputy minister was accompanied by a detailed analysis of the exam’s deficiencies.)

In the end, Mr. Crowley is advocating that comparisons and evaluations of the effectiveness of schools be based solely on raw standardized test results.

If only life were that simple.

Brian Forbes is president, Nova Scotia Teachers Union.