Thursday, November 5, 2009

Charting growth vs. standardized testing

I am in the middle of reviewing schools- it's an annual encounter(every fall) with school principals from across the District, where subcommittees of two trustees review last year's results and discuss with principals what the implications are for the upcoming school year. In essence, it's a chance to reflect, deepen our understanding of how our students are doing, what challenges schools are facing, and how everyone is planning to improve.

The biggest benefit to me, as a trustee, is not so much reviewing the data, but being able to understand the story behind the data.

Which brings me to the topic of this blog- "charting growth vs. standardized testing."

The Province mandates standardized testing as a means to ensure accountability. We all want to be assured that the public dollars invested in education is being wisely used, that students are learning and that teachers are doing a good job. I have no problem with those goals. In fact, I think they are critically important.

However, the testing doesn't reveal the true story. Currently in Edmonton, we have a growing population of students arriving at our schools with serious language deficits... schools I reviewed today had 40-55% English Language learning students. How can you understand the history of the Aboriginal people of Canada or the concept of local government, when you can't speak the language? Imagine yourself trying to take a course in Urdu or Swahili, how well would you score? As well, many of our students have special needs (cognitive, behavioural, emotional) and some are very severe. Others are experiencing extreme poverty (1 in 6 children in Edmonton live in poverty. Roughly translated, that means 12,000 children within Edmonton Public Schools.) Others have experienced trauma in refugee camps and never been to a school.

In short- all children do not start at the same place. Some come to Kindergarten knowing how to read, some have never seen a book and don't know how it "works". To ask them all to arrive at the same finish line on the same day (in grades 3, 6, 9 and 12) doesn't make sense. It is demoralizing to the hard work of many staff members who are playing a desperate game of 'catch up' with some of their students. These students may, in fact, show heroic personal growth, but they still fall short of the standardized expectations and are recorded as "fails to achieve the acceptable standard."

It reminds me of my son's physical growth chart as a baby. At birth, he was tiny (5 lbs. 12 oz) and ended up on the doctor's chart at the 25th percentile: "Below average". How I wanted him to get to the 50th percentile... but every month he steadfastly remained at the 25th percentile. I felt like a failure and this was unkindly reinforced every time the nurse plotted his weight on the chart with a disapproving sigh: "Still in the 25th percentile". Until finally, the doctor pointed out the obvious- his growth was a perfect curve; he was keeping perfect pace with himself. He was growing. He was proportionate and in the end, as the doctor said, "Someone has to be in the 25th percentile". I threw away the chart and looked for other indicators of health and well-being.

It's not a failure for a child to enter our system in grade 3 with no English (essentially below kindergarten or 4 years behind), no idea what school is about and within a year, he has friends, can communicate, enjoys being at school and is demonstrating progress academically. In grade 5, he is gaining ground and is now only 2-3 years behind. By grade 8, he is at grade level. This is a remarkable achievement which points to incredible dedication on the part of both the teachers and the student. In fact, his GROWTH (gaining 10 years growth in 5 years) far outstrips the other students in his cohort... and yet, this will not be known by looking at standardized testing.

Similar stories can be applied to students with special needs or children who have come from deprived backgrounds.

I suggest, with all respect, that we are measuring the wrong thing.

I heard today from one principal that it is possible to account for growth, we have the measures and it could be put into nice charts and graphs for those who like that sort of thing... so let's focus on GROWTH and leave PERFORMANCE where it belongs: on the stage!

1 comment:

Nick Morra said...

Hi Sue,

Great post. Although standardized tests have a place, we should always be looking for better and smarter ways to measure the quality of education and the success of a student.

This reminded me of the C. D. Howe "School Grades" report ( which takes a number of socio-ecomonic factors such as income, native language, parent education level and so on, and then predicts how well a school or student should do on the PAT. Not perfect, but it at least tries to recognize some of the language and ecomonic differences you touched on.

Interestingly, in the report many of the CCEP schools score even lower than predicted. This suggests that even accounting for various disadvantages, the students still aren't getting as good an education as they could. Why is this happening? (A good question for a concerned school board to look into....)

One school that bucks this trend is John A. MacDougall. I remember talking to the principal about how she implemented full-day kindergarten because so many of the local children were showing up with little or no basic language skills (mostly due to the neighbourhood demographics) and they needed help to catch up.

You mentioned we already have the information to measure individual growth - maybe this needs to be analyzed sooner rather than later. Particularly in the context of the sector reviews; we should be evaluating more than simple enrollment numbers. Student growth and the importance of a school to its neighbourhood also matter greatly.