Real Accountability or an Illusion of Success?:
A Call to Review Standardized Testing
OTTAWA, ON (February 16, 2013) – The Action Canada Task Force on Standardized Testing has just released a report analyzing the place of standardized testing as an accountability measure in Canadian K-12 education systems, using Ontario as a case study focus. “A review of standardized testing in this province and others is not only timely – it’s urgently needed,” says Sébastien Després, a 2012-2013 Action Canada Fellow and co-author of the report. Després explains that when standardized testing was established in Ontario two decades ago, the Royal Commission which recommended the creation of the province’s Education Quality and Assessment Office (EQAO) and the adoption of standardized testing in the province had also recommended that a five-year review be undertaken. Almost twenty years later, this review has yet to be done. Després concludes, “As things stand, the current testing system may or may not be facilitating the achievement of the education system’s range of objectives. A review of this accountability measure should be a top priority.”
Teaching is often said to be “the second most private act in which adults engage” (Dufour 1991) since it tends to take place behind closed doors, away from the view of many stakeholders. In its essence, however, teaching is a public and political act, and is fundamental to the continuing development of a citizenry that drives Canada’s global competitiveness and social and economic prosperity. Recognizing the importance of education, many jurisdictions have turned to standardized testing as a means of ensuring accountability for results. In some circles, this measure has become controversial, as stakeholders – and the public as a whole – are polarized as to whether standardized testing is an appropriate way of evaluating students and the overall effectiveness of education systems in light of their objectives and curricula.
Sébastien Després, a lecturer in Anthropology and Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland, explains that standardized testing regimes are costly and time-consuming enterprises that can have an important impact on the classroom experience. “We know that not all students are motivated by marks and academic achievement. We also know that when these things are prioritized over others, instruction can become boring, and kids become disengaged.” The report also explores how standardized testing can impact teaching as a profession, and echoes earlier studies that show how an over-emphasis on test scores can diminish teachers’ role in determining the content and methods of instruction, casting teachers as efficiency experts who carry out instruction determined by someone else.
Standardized testing can also shift attention away from the presentation of the full breadth of a given province’s prescribed curriculum, to a narrowed focus on what they measure: literacy and numeracy. This is recognized by the EQAO, who in a recent report highlighted that “What gets measured gets attention.” Task Force member Marie-Josée Parent arranged for specially-commissioned artwork by Montreal artist Josée Pedneault and a short animated film featuring drawings from Winnipeg artist Ben Clarkson to accompany the report, a nod to the damaging effect that standardized testing regimes can have on the teaching of the arts, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and a list of other skills and competencies prescribed by provincial curricula. “Recognizing that the means by which we strive to make our education systems transparent necessarily have an impact on these systems is a good first step in a bold direction,” says Després, “and we are hopeful that this recognition will go a long way in occasioning a change in priorities from a focus on test scores to a focus on the ultimate purposes of education.”
To view the report in its entirety, visit: http://www.
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Action Canada Fellow (2012/13)
Department of Anthropology, Memorial University of Newfoundland