It looks like the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union intends to step up its opposition to standardized testing — again. The Primary Elementary Teachers Association, one of its affiliates, plans to feature a keynote address by well-known testing opponent Alfie Kohn at its upcoming convention later this month.
Kohn is one of the most controversial education writers in North America today. It isn’t hard to see why. Kohn opposes not only standardized tests, but teacher-created tests and assignments as well. He doesn’t think students should receive grades, supports no-fail policies, and is critical of any form of direct instruction.
On Oct. 24, elementary teachers from across the province will gather at Casino Nova Scotia to hear Kohn address them on the topic of “Assessment and Challenging High-Stakes Testing.” No doubt these teachers will be encouraged to do everything in their power to oppose standardized testing in Nova Scotia.
Hopefully, at least some of the teachers who attend this conference will see through Kohn’s rhetoric and examine the evidence. In fact, there are many reasons why teachers should support, rather than oppose, standardized testing.
Perhaps the most important reason is that standardized tests make it possible to measure student academic achievement across the province. Because all students write the same test on the same day, the results are more reliable than are the results of teacher-created tests, which vary widely depending on each teacher.
This does not mean that teacher-created tests are unimportant. Rather, they simply need to be balanced with standardized tests in order to get a true picture of student academic achievement.
Another benefit of standardized testing is that it helps teachers focus their instruction on the mandated curriculum. Knowing that their students will be tested on the curriculum provides teachers with a strong incentive to cover the material thoroughly.
For the provincial government to set meaningful targets for academic skills in reading, writing and math, some form of standardized testing is essential. Otherwise, there is no way of knowing whether students have learned the curriculum.
Parents send their children to school with the expectation that they will learn specific knowledge and skills. Standardized testing holds teachers and principals accountable for meeting these expectations.
One of the arguments commonly made by opponents of standardized testing is that they are biased against students from minority groups and from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are two main problems with this argument.
First, if it is possible to identify examples of bias on standardized tests, it is also possible to correct these biases. Rather than simply throwing out the entire test because of a few examples of bias, why not make the necessary adjustments to ensure that the tests are fair?
The second problem is that it questions the ability of teachers to help all students learn the curriculum. Teachers regularly provide special assistance to students who are disadvantaged because of their linguistic or cultural experiences, and it is reasonable to think that this assistance will be provided when disadvantaged students are preparing to write standardized tests.
Another common argument against standardized testing is that it is too costly and the money could be better spent elsewhere. This argument also fails to withstand critical scrutiny.
The Evaluation Services division of the Department of Education is responsible for standardized testing in this province. It has a total annual budget of approximately $2.7 million. To put this amount in perspective, the Department of Education has a total annual budget of just over $1.2 billion.
In other words, standardized testing would make up only 0.2 per cent of total education spending in Nova Scotia. It seems reasonable to spend 0.2 per cent of the education budget on a reliable and valid evaluation of academic achievement. Eliminating standardized testing in the name of reducing costs makes about as much sense as removing diagnostic equipment from hospitals in order to save money.
When Nova Scotia teachers hear Alfie Kohn repeat the same worn-out arguments against standardized testing this fall, let’s hope at least some of them reject his faulty reasoning. Their union’s misguided opposition to standardized testing is a disservice to students, teachers, and parents.
Michael Zwaagstra is the AIMS Fellow in Common Sense Education and a public high school teacher
*This piece appeared in the opinion section of the Chronicle Herald