Michael Zwaagstra on tests and student achievementThe latest test results from the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) reveal that Prince Edward Island students scored among the highest in the country. It’s impressive, but even more so when we remember that a decade ago P.E.I. scored at the bottom of Canadian provinces.

One shouldn’t read too much into the results of one assessment, particularly since PCAP measures only a sample of Grade 8 students. However, P.E.I. has seen similar gains in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that takes place every three years. When two standardized assessment instruments show similar results, there’s good reason to take the information seriously.

P.E.I.’s gains on the PISA and PCAP assessments coincide almost precisely with the introduction of provincial standardized testing. Prior to 2007, P.E.I. students wrote no standardized exams and ranked near the bottom in student achievement in Canada. After the province introduced standardized testing in several grade levels, student achievement has substantially improved.

It isn’t hard to see why standardized testing makes a difference, since it ensures that curriculum outcomes are taught. It’s too easy for school administrators to introduce numerous initiatives that teachers know burn their time to cover the entire curriculum. Standardized testing gives teachers the incentive to push back on fads and to point out that students need to prepare for upcoming provincial standardized tests.

Unfortunately, the Prince Edward Island Teachers’ Federation continues to oppose standardized testing. In particular, the federation thinks that the provincial government should scrap these tests and use the money to improve classroom conditions.

The problem with this proposal is that the provincial government spends only $1.2 million on assessment each year. With a total annual budget of about $274 million, standardized testing makes up less than one-half of a per cent of the education budget.

While standardized testing appears to have a big impact on student achievement, its impact on the budget is tiny. Clearly, the provincial government should continue with the standardized testing program.

However, the government needs to do more.

In order to make further improvements in student achievement, the government needs to revise the curriculum and place greater emphasis on subject-specific content knowledge. Like other provinces, P.E.I. is heavily influenced by the 21st century learning skills movement.

This movement, represented in this country by the organization C21 Canada, believes it’s more important to teach students ‘transferable skills’ than to help them acquire content knowledge. Because the world is changing so quickly, C21 advocates claim there’s no point in having students memorize facts that will soon be outdated. Rather, students should learn what Ontario education guru Michael Fullan calls the six Cs: character, citizenship, collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity.

However, the six Cs omit the most important C of all: content. Every subject has specific knowledge that students need to master and without that content, students can’t think critically about a subject, communicate effectively about it, or collaborate meaningfully with others. Unless students have content knowledge, the six Cs are useless.

Math is one of the subjects hit hardest by this approach. In 2015, the C.D. Howe Institute published a report authored by math professor Anna Stokke pointing out that math curricula across Canada put too little emphasis on direct learning strategies such as memorizing multiplication tables and practising long division.

P.E.I. educational officials can’t afford to be complacent. In the latest PCAP results, math was the one subject where P.E.I. students scored below the national average.

Another reason to increase content knowledge in the curriculum is that it directly influences reading comprehension. Many research studies confirm that students with prior background knowledge about the topic of an article or book are most likely to be able to understand what they read. It means that students need to learn as much as possible in as many subjects as they can. Instead of reducing content in the curriculum, education officials need to increase it.

There are two lessons that other Atlantic Canadian governments can learn from P.E.I.’s experience.

The first is that there’s merit to continuing with and expanding standardized testing, even when teachers’ unions oppose it.

The second is to beware of the 21st century learning hype. Replacing curriculum content with generic ‘critical thinking skills’ would do all students a disservice.

Instead, the Atlantic provinces should revise curriculum guides to reflect a knowledge-rich emphasis.

Students deserve nothing less.

Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) and a public high school teacher.

tests and student achievement

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