Student assessments can help kids succeed—but it depends where you live

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Appeared in the Edmonton Sun, May 25, 2022
Student assessments can help kids succeed—but it depends where you liveStudent assessments can help kids succeed—but it depends where you live

Tests are part of life. Driving tests, diagnostic tests and student testing in schools. Without external impartial measurement, we don’t know how we’re doing or how we can improve. Yet according to a new study published by the Fraser Institute, the administration of fair objective student tests in Canada varies widely by province.

Take Alberta and Saskatchewan—two Prairie provinces with dramatically different provincewide testing programs from kindergarten to Grade 12. Often called “standardized tests,” they typically assess the basics such as math, language arts and science, testing all students at the same level, at the same time, on the same material.

Alberta’s education system has one of the most comprehensive testing programs in the country, especially with the provincial government’s commitment to restore the Grade 3 Provincial Achievement Test, adding to similar tests in Grades 6 and 9 and a diploma exam in Grade 12. This allows Alberta parents, students, teachers, principals, policymakers and the public to see—objectively—how students are doing, which schools are useful case studies for others to learn from, and where there’s room for growth.

Yet next door, Saskatchewan is the only province to not administer any K-12 provincial assessments.

Why is this a problem? Again, provincial assessments allow for external comparison. And research also shows that this type of testing can improve student achievement to a degree basic classroom testing does not. With Canadian student test scores declining in math, science and reading in the latest round of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests—before the pandemic dramatically interrupted student learning— provincial governments across the country should be hyper-focused on strengthening student achievement.

Outside Saskatchewan, every province has some level of standardized testing of students. But there’s much room for improvement.

In some provinces, provincial testing programs have been scaled back in recent years, leaving a void in accountability. For example, the British Columbia government replaced meaningful course-based student exams with vague student literacy and numeracy assessments, which have no impact on grades or graduation. Yet in other provinces (Newfoundland and Labrador, for example), K-12 testing programs are being expanded. During the pandemic, most provincial testing programs were suspended. It’s critical governments get these testing programs back on track. Knowing how kids are doing is essential to helping them improve. Here are three key ways all provinces can provide quality provincial testing.

First, give students a meaningful stake in standardized testing programs—in other words, make the tests matter by affecting final course grades or graduation so students do their best and teachers and schools do their best to prepare students.

Second, make the results transparent to everyone—parents, teachers, principals, policymakers and taxpayers. School systems improve when they have the incentive to improve. Everyone benefits from a strong education system and everyone deserves to be informed with detailed school-by-school results.

Third, return to course-base exams so students are tested on material they need to know not simply broad concepts such as numeracy and literacy. And ensure students are tested fairly and objectively throughout their K-12 educational careers.

Strengthening provincewide testing programs should be a priority for every provincial government to ensure accountability for the education system, and most importantly, because research shows these testing programs help students thrive. After two years of learning disruptions, that matters now more than ever.

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