Comment: Provincewide testing is a key tool for improving B.C. schools

In his recent commentary in the Times Colonist, Geoff Johnson, a retired school superintendent, makes the case for eliminating provincewide testing in British Columbia. This is a misguided proposal.

In reality, large-scale testing can benefit B.C. students. Indeed, during the 20 years I was responsible for the Fraser Institute’s school rankings, I found that dedicated principals and superintendents routinely used the results of provincewide testing as the basis for school improvement.

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From the outset, let’s be clear. The frequent assessment of students by teachers has quite a different purpose than provincewide testing. Teacher-based assessment is assessment of individual students by individual teachers and is based on the daily interaction between teachers and students. Such assessment is of little use in acquiring data to inform an improvement program.

Even so, when parents receive their own children’s results from provincewide testing, they can get a more complete picture.

It’s a sort of objective second opinion that can be compared with the teacher’s assessment.

But feedback for parents is just one benefit of provincewide testing. Perhaps its greatest benefit comes from the capacity to compare results within a single school over time.

With these data in hand, principals can see where improvement is already being made and where improvement has not yet begun.

But what if a school’s principal or superintendent is not certain that improvement is even possible? Fortunately, the comparison of data from provincewide testing consistently shows that some schools do better than others — even when the students’ personal and family characteristics are taken into account.

What better motivation can there be than the knowledge that others have already found ways to improve?

Of course, motivation must be matched with an effective improvement plan. Over the years, I’ve been asked to help principals of less-successful schools who want to find “similar schools” whose principals might help them develop effective improvement plans. I have always been able to find exemplar schools for any principal needing assistance.

Principals and superintendents must routinely embrace improvement as a key responsibility. Provincewide testing, which can enable comparisons between schools, is an integral part of any improvement plan. For a better education for every child, we must ask that every school find ways to ensure that the latest class does better than those that came before. Again, provincewide data help make this happen.

Of course, Johnson’s real concern is that school-by-school results are made public and used to produce rankings (by the Fraser Institute) so anyone can see the results data and make these same comparisons. Perhaps he believes there’s no benefit to sharing these important results with non-professionals such as parents and taxpayers.

But surely, parents have the right to see these data. Indeed, I have found that parents are often important contributors to any given school’s improvement plan.

I’ve spoken with many parents over the years who have seen deteriorating results at their children’s school and are eager to know what they can do to help.

But if the principal does not have an improvement plan, or if improvement is not forthcoming, parents are certainly willing to demand one. As one parent once told me, “If the principal’s response doesn’t make sense, we’ll go to the superintendent. If that doesn’t work, we will go to the board.”

This is one major reason why so many families consult the Fraser Institute’s school rankings each year — parents concerned about their school’s effectiveness.

Those responsible for the delivery of education — teachers, principals, district superintendents, Ministry of Education staff and the minister himself — must be dedicated to continuous improvement.

To deny the importance of objective, comparable, annual-generated, easily available school results data is to hobble any improvement plan before it’s even begun.

Peter Cowley is a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute.

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