Alberta gets rid of Provincial Achievement Tests

A file photo of a child in a classroom. File / Global News

EDMONTON – The government announced Thursday it will be replacing the current Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) for Grades 3, 6 and 9 with a series of new computer-based tests called Student Learning Assessments.

“The big difference, and you can take it out of the name, is that the tests are going to be centered around the student, and centered around assessment for learning, as opposed to assessment of learning,” explains Education Minister Jeff Johnson.

The Student Learning Assessments will be developed by experts and given at the start of Grades 3, 6 and 9. (Traditional paper copies of the test will also be available).

“Kids learn at their own pace, and we need to make sure parents and teachers are informed about how kids are doing and where they might need help,” says Johnson.

“We want to take that information and turn it around faster. We want to get it in the hands of parents, we want to get it in the hands of teachers at the start of the year, so then they can use that to understand, where are my child’s weaknesses, where are his strengths, what’s the strategy now with the teacher to make sure we address those throughout the year, and we’re going to make throughout the year so they can re-test,” he adds.

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“Assessing children’s literacy and numeracy skills at the beginning of the school year is a step in the right direction,” said Brad Vonkeman, president of the Alberta School Councils’ Association. “This shift should encourage a greater focus on each student’s individual learning needs and promote better communication between teachers and parents.”

NDP Education Critic David Eggen says the new tests are a positive first step, but warns there are issues to watch out for.

“As a teacher, I know that having something solid at the beginning of the year you can build something for the student and for the family for the whole year to improve their skills, but I don’t want that information to be out and being used as comparators to others schools and other places, because after July and August of not being in school, the differences will be even more pronounced.”

The province says the tests will still have a strong focus on literacy and numeracy, but will also help educators and parents understand how competent students are when it comes to things like creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

“This is very good news for Alberta students and parents,” said Carol Henderson, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association. “The current testing program provided little value for learning and did not fit with the vision of Inspiring Education.”

“This new test is not going to be all in the high-stakes, sit down, two hour test,” explains Johnson. “It’s going to be broken up over a window of days, so it’s less strenuous in terms of for the students, and for the teacher, but we’ll still get all the information we need.”

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PATs have long been the subject of controversy. During the last Tory leadership race, Alison Redford talked about changing the direction of education policy in Alberta. During her leadership campaign, Redford promised teachers she’s restore more than $100 million to education in the province and eliminate provincial assessment exams for students in Grades 3 and 6.

However, an expert in the field has been speaking out against getting rid of PATs for, he says, the sake of Alberta’s education system, and – ultimately – students.

“If you get rid of Provincial Achievement Testing, you run the risk of having happen what happened in Manitoba,” Jim Dueck, an educational consultant and retired assistant deputy minister for Alberta Education, told Global News in October.

“Manitoba did that same thing after the NDP got elected in Manitoba back in 1999, and in the year 2000, when the government did away with Provincial Achievement Testing for Grade 3, the province at that time was ranked fourth in the country and today, they’re ranked ninth.”

He says if governments really want to see education improve, more accountability is necessary, and that means more standardized testing.

“What it does is, first of all, provides a check and balance on the system to make sure that the provincial standards are being applied and achieved consistently across the province, and therefore parents know how their child is doing relative to those provincial expectations all around the province,” explains Dueck.

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“Parents will often only get the marks of the teachers. Unfortunately, the data on teacher marks is that they are not very consistent.”

Johnson says Alberta Education will still track progress and have that benchmark to measure the success of the education system and that of its students.

“As a province, we do want some standardized test. We want to have that assurance for parents and for the taxpayers that the system is delivering what it should.”

The president of the Alberta School Boards Association says this change in Alberta will help understand students’ needs and help parents and educators create a plan to address them.

“This change will ensure that each Alberta student will now start Grade 3 with a snapshot of his/her strengths and where they may need to improve,” said Jacquie Hansen. “From there, students, parents and teachers will draw up an individual roadmap to build on each student’s strengths and to address each student’s challenges. Follow through will be key to make this individualized learning possible.”

Dueck says Alberta’s educational success in the past can be credited to teachers’ involvement in facilitating and monitoring student assessment.

“The reason that it was so outstanding was because classroom teachers were involved in every aspect of the testing program from developing the questions to field testing those questions,” he says.

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The province says Alberta Education will continue to work with the Alberta Teachers’ Association, Alberta School Boards Association, College of Alberta School Superintendents, Alberta School Councils’ Association and the Alberta Assessment Consortium to develop the new test and the Student Learning Assessment process.

“Every single leadership makes a difference. Is that difference going to be positive or is it going to be negative? It’s going to be positive if they increase the amount of accountability required in the system, it’s going to be negative leadership if they take it away,” says Dueck.

Pilots will start September 2014, with Grade 3 students being the first to write the new assessments. Full implementation for Grade 3 is expected by September 2015. Pilots for Grades 6 and 9 are scheduled to begin in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

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