Public Values

Fraser Institute's school rankings more harm than good

Standardized exams poor way of assessing students.

Students need to how perform different tasks, procedures, not write testsby Markham Hislop

June, for educators, is supposed to be a happy time of year. Students are moving on to different grades, some students are graduating, and there is always the excitement of summer vacation.

But for many teachers it's a time of sober reflection and for some, even depression. The problem is that there is so much emphasis on standardized exams mandated by the province that the pleasant time of the year can be spoiled. Plus, every June the Fraser Institute releases their rankings of high schools which is a further downer for teachers. It's like a death at Christmas.

Therefore, teachers have to work extra hard at keeping positive and uplifted in their jobs. So what's the problem with standardized exams? To put it bluntly, they are a poor way of assessing students.

Like in every other discipline in the world, educators have learned and progressed in their profession. They now know the good and bad ways of assessing student learning. Standardized tests might have been a good way of assessing student learning in 1950, but in 2009 they are abysmal failures.

The correct way of assessing to see if students have learned is by actually getting them to do the tasks they were taught. Educators have learned this concept in areas like Art and Welding. No Art or Welding teacher in their right mind would give a final exam.

What they actually do is teach and show students how to perform different tasks and procedures, and then students are marked on how well they actually do them.

Alberta needs skilled people who can actually draw and design, weld, fix cars, cut hair, fit pipes together, program computers, and create web pages; what is not needed is people who can get a 100 per cent on a test about them.

Would you want a surgeon to perform a surgery on you who has done a hundred of the same surgeries or a surgeon who has just written a test about the surgical procedure and received 100 per cent? The answer should be obvious.

  "Standardized tests might have been a good way of assessing student learning in 1950, but in 2009 they are abysmal failures."

Yet year-after-year and decade-after-decade schools labor under the weight of standardized tests, not so much because they have to administer them, but because teachers know they are antiquated.

However, standardized tests are relatively cheap to administer and they provide governments with some data (even if it's poor data) on which they can make some kind of decisions.  But since the data is poor the decisions are liable to be flawed.

Some people will argue that in the academic subjects standardized tests are the best way to assess learning. Courses like Math and English naturally lend themselves to final assessments. Sometimes they go as far as to say that there is no real way of having students perform practical tasks in the academic subjects.

However, what these critics fail to realize in that assessing students it is perhaps even more important to assess the process the students follow to get to their final product and to assess process is impossible on standardized exams.

For example, science students need to follow the scientific method to find results. If the method is flawed, then the results will be as flawed as well. Good science teachers spend as much time on teaching and assessing process as the desired result in science.

In business profit is the motive that drives people and businesses to do well. Yet, there are numerous examples in these days of recession where businesses were too focused on profit without examining the processes of how they did business. Taxpayers are now footing the bill for their poor business processes.

Mathematicians and math students work daily on finding solutions to mathematical problems, yet an important part of their work is to show how they arrived at the solution. This "showing of the work" is done by students as young as elementary school, but is also done by university professors of mathematics when they write twenty-five page proofs.

Historians and students in social studies do research in their specific social sciences, but how they arrive at particular opinions is just as important as the opinion itself. How they show how they arrive at opinions is through documentation of research.

If a person were to read an article or book written about a historical event it would be heavily footnoted and would have an extensive list of sited books. This is done to show how the writer arrived at their particular opinion.

Even in the nebulous and subjective area of English it is important to show how a person arrived upon an opinion. For one to have an opinion about a piece of literature studied one must refer back to the piece of literature and explain what in the literature forces the writer and thinker to have that particular opinion.

  "What the Fraser Institute does is post their research on their own website and publishes it in newspapers that are notoriously like-minded in their thinking. Also, in their research nobody of importance is cited and in fact they reference themselves more times than they reference other thinkers and professionals."

It is truly ironic that after discussing all the good ways of assessing students there is the Fraser Institute, which is a shining example of how not to do assessment.

The data they produce and their assessments of schools is so dramatically flawed that it is laughable. They take standardized tests scores, add some concocted variables and brew them all together to arrive at a number.

Then they rank schools by their elixir-like number. This potion is too hard to swallow and in fact does more to poison the education system rather than help it.

In education there is solid documented research being done by university professors, master's degree holders and educational philosophers that again and again proves that ranking schools by standardized tests scores is a poor practice.

Also, their research is published in educational journals and is examined and stands up to scrutiny from other educators and educational scientists.

What the Fraser Institute does is post their research on their own website and publishes it in newspapers that are notoriously like-minded in their thinking. Also, in their research nobody of importance is cited and in fact they reference themselves more times than they reference other thinkers and professionals.

So, at the Fraser Institute report they talk about how their research will improve education and help teachers and parents, but what they are doing is black magic to schools. Therefore, schools and educational professional with any intelligence or credibility simply ignore their information.

Sadly though, some parents swallow this poor information and make choices on which school to send their children.

Regardless of the unsavory practices around standardized tests this time of year, teachers are working hard to see the sweetness in their work, knowing that someday others will taste the proper knowledge of true assessment.

Markham Hislop is the editor and publisher of S.E. Calgary News.

Links and sources
  SE Calgary News
  Fraser Institute "Report Cards" on school performance
  BC Teachers' Federation - Fraser Institute's rankings mislead
  The Fraser Institute's Message Machine - The Tyee

Posted: December 14, 2009

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