Testing, Accountability, and Standards

It’s school testing season again. The Fraser Institute is issuing it’s report card. The Teacher’s Federation is advising parents to pull out of the FSA. The government is debating achievement legislation. The Vancouver Sun has even published competing commentaries on this issue: download commentaries.

What’s the deal? For politicians and pundits, parents and almost every wag on the street, there is a deep seated belief that our education is failing. Even in the face of evidence to the contrary this is a persistent belief that has been growing over the past couple of decades.
Here’s a different tack – how about parental responsibility and accountability. Why do we expect the school system to do everything for our children? Isn’t it time that we grew up and accepted the consequences of our decisions to be parents?

It is so easy to say the system has failed. That teachers have failed. That politicians have failed. But don’t we all have some small bit of responsibility in this picture? The two income professional parents who warehouse their children in daycare from 7-5 and then can’t understand why their child is a ‘problem’ at school. The parent suffering from substance abuse who can’t meet their own needs let alone their children’s. The many parents who don’t really seem to think it matters whether or not their children play computer games and MSN all night long.

If 1000s of children are just being babysat all day, as one commentator said, then why don’t those parents go into the schools and do something?

Maybe it’s just easier to complain from the sidelines. It’s tough being a parent on call 24/7. It’s hard to do all the ‘right’ things. There are few among us (unless we are somehow able to walk on water) who don’t harbour regrets that they could have done more for their children or for themselves.

I constantly wonder why we expect so much from public education but seem so unwilling to give or do more?

If testing and measuring and comparing and setting standards is really about learning and teaching than why hasn’t it led to a better society? We still have poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, wars and crime all over the place.

I guess it all comes down to the belief that somehow teachers should be doing more. It’s as though we –parents- seem to feel that if teachers don’t deal with our child according to our expectations then there must be something wrong with the teacher.

But what do we really want from teachers?

  • Do we really want them to be superhuman and more accomplished and dedicated than parents?
  • Do we really want them to solve all of the world’s problems?
  • Are we willing to allow them time to have their own family life, their own children, their own cares, worries, and pleasures?

Apparently not because if truth be told we seem to want them to solve every single problem that we have in society.

I must confess to having grown tired of the following complaints:

  • If my child can’t read -it’s the schools fault.
  • If my child is unhappy at school -it’s the teacher’s fault (how often have parents said/heard “that teacher doesn’t like my child? be honest).
  • If my child is failing in math -the math teacher can’t teach.
  • If my child is bullied at school -the school is at fault.
    and on it goes.

I think that we need to take responsibility for our own actions. And we need to start at home. Sometimes it’s a hard to accept that our children won’t be able to fulfill all of our dreams, or that our children have different dreams than we do.

But rather than that we opt to have ‘greater’ accountability (and the emphasis is completely upon counting). The way in which the ministry operationalizes accountability in terms of IEPs is to have measurable outcomes.

For example, in terms of a child confined to a wheelchair the measurable outcome is how many times did the child attempt to wheel themselves to the washroom rather than asking to be wheeled. For a child with a learning disability we have a measurable outcome that tracks how often the child self-advocated. Etc. . . These measurable outcomes are compared to rubrics listing expected outcomes in a range of items that can now be placed on a graph and in a table. These charts and tables are passed up the system and finally we read about ‘achievement successes’ in the deputy minister’s newsletter where he artfully combines school success stories with comparative data from across the province that ‘proves’ 8 out 10 students confined to wheelchairs have met or exceed the standard set for them. W o n d e r f u l. And this can be repeated for every category.

So what are the alternatives? The testing mania seems to be so ingrained in our psyches that it is practically unimaginable for most people to see an alternative. Further more, some of those who are opposed to the testing frenzy are opposed because it is simply one more thing that they are being told they have to do in the face of many other things that are far more important.

For solutions: How about individual responsibility combined with collective concern? Rather than complaining about school failure perhaps we should take a more active role in our children’s education. I don’t mean hire more tutors or raise more money. I mean take the time to be with your children, to learn about what they are learning, to read with them, to play with them, and to participate in the life of your children’s schools. We also need to take a greater social and collective concern for our education. Rather than relegating education to the realm of consumer choice we need to reinvigorate education as a n activity of learning which prioritizes exploring the world within which we live. We have to stop seeing education as training and job placement. We have to replace trust in testing with trust in teaching. In short we need to value education in a way that doesn’t involve charts, graphs, numbers, tables, or dollars. It’s time to create the possibility for learning absent the mania of accountability.

6 thoughts on “Testing, Accountability, and Standards

  1. Notwithstanding all these concerns about the testing agenda, I’m still waiting for suggestions from the critics about what they propose instead to demand accountability from the system.

    And that accountability is still sorely lacking in certain areas, despite all the testing that’s been piled on in recent years:

    * A Grade 7 student I know (with no special needs diagnosis) who was unable to read in Grade 7 and who was permitted to just doodle in class all day, until he finally ended up with a foster mom who demanded better from the system.

    * Thousands of kids with special needs labels who are just being babysat all day, with little or no effort to actually teach them any academics
    * Teachers (and they are few and far between) who simply don’t want special needs kids in their class and refuse to take any specialized training or to
    make any real effort, leaving their care and “education” entirely to a special ed assistant.

    * Students who are only allowed to attend school part time, because there are not even enough resources to babysit them safely for a whole day.

    * So-called special ed programs run by inexperienced teachers lacking any specialized training in special education.

    * Resource teachers and special education assistants lacking any special ed training

    * Students who are not even assessed or identified for learning supports (identified Gifted students have dropped from 3,000 to about 1,500 in Vancouver since Christy Clark stopped extra funding for them in 2002)

    * Students who are simply “medically excluded” and sent home all day indefinitely

    * Certain groups, like Aboriginal students, ESL and special needs students, who are dropping out and or failing to achieve the promises included in the mandate laid out by the School Act (re every child achieving his/her potential)

    * Schools like ours that simply excuse all the low-performing kids from the FSAs to artifically inflate the school’s scores, because the annual Fraser Institute report was driving down enrolment.

    As long as all this continues to happen, parents, the public, taxpayers and/or political leaders will continue to offer so-called achievement measures.

    I re-emphasize that it’s not enough to reject them without offering credible alternatives that will address all the above and more.

  2. Letter to the Editor: Houston Today
    Education not production
    April 11, 2007

    Bill 20, the School (Student Achievement Enabling) Amendment Act, 2007, will turn schools from places of learning into places of production.

    Genuine education involves inquiry, gathering evidence, reasoning and discussion with others.

    The slogans of literacy and achievement mean a focus on marks. Expect more cheating, not only by students but also by administrators trying to make their schools look good.

    Bill 20 is a political/administrative control device in which the Ministry’s tests define achievement. This represents, not improvement, but a return to sorting students for future opportunities rather than educating everyone for life and citizenship.

    It means students will learn to submit to central authority and teachers will have less capacity to exercise their professional judgment.

    The purpose has shifted from educating citizens and human beings to training human resources for business and industry.

    In addition to corrupting the purpose of education, the bill undermines democratic governance by placing appointed administrators
    above elected school boards, further weakening the capacity of local parents and citizens to influence education in their communities.

    The government should withdraw this bill and consult with citizens before bringing back another one.

    Dave Stevens


  3. No one here has suggested that we need to grade teachers either and no one denies that many teachers work very hard and no one is suggesting that we ask them to work harder. But Charles’ suggestion that it’s up to parents to step forward and fill the gaps is entirely inconsistent with the mandate of public education, in which one of the foundational principles is that the student’s education should be independent of parental status or ability — i.e. the great level playing field. Charles’ suggestion is a very dangerous one, in my view, and its acceptance undermines the very integrity of our public education system.

  4. I don’t believe that what I am saying is that it’s all the parent’s fault. If I am saying that -please accept my apologies. What I am saying is that responsibility, accountability, and obligation is never a one way street. I have heard too many complaints from parents who expect so much but are unwilling to pay taxes to fund education (there is always an excuse of some sort).

    Neither do I think it is dangerous to accept individual responsibility at the same time as one demands social responsibility. The constant expectations of entitlement absent of any recognition of personal responsibility strikes me as an unfortunately manifestation of contemporary society. It would seem that everybody wants, but nobody wants to give.

    My criticisms are targeted at those who support a market-model of standardized testing and accountability. How about the language of obligation and responsibility? No measure will adequately count the harm done by an education system that sorts people into privileged locations and underprivileged locations. No form of accountability measure will ever be able to take into account the impact of, for example, residential schools.

    The danger of my approach is that it might actual transform our education system into something that is based upon learning and becoming democratic citizens. It’s time that we turned our back upon the training model of eduction to one that explores ideas and enables people to become citizens in a progressive and caring society. No amount of testing will ever do that.


  5. Accountability Question re: High School IEP’s and Report Cards…How often are IEP’s actually signed by an administrator at the high school level? Are there any administrators (School and/or Special Education Principals) monitoring the matching of goals and objectives outlined in the IEP to what is being taught to these students in the classroom?

  6. RE: Question above: IEP’s are audited by the ministry on a regular basis (depending of course upon funding decision by the ministry). The current guidelines focus on ‘measurable outcomes.’ That means every goal in an IEP has to be measurable in some quantitative manner. Are principals checking out every classroom, all the time? No -it’s not possible. As a parent of children in high school with IEP’s I work with my children, the school resource teachers, and the counselors to ensure that we are all at the same place and that my children develop the capacity for self-advocacy. I have found that by and large most teachers, when presented with the concerns and information work to meet the learning needs. The problem becomes issues around time, capacity (of the system; not the individual), and resources.


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