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High-school students in Alberta have given the provincial government – and its foes – a new weapon in the fight over education: top marks.

Students in Alberta, on average, posted higher test scores than their counterparts across the country in reading, math and science, according to the results of a global assessment released last week. And when compared with students in other countries, Alberta teens ranked among the best in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

This comes as Albertans spar over education funding, curriculum, teaching methods and standardized testing. The governing United Conservative Party last summer nixed its predecessor’s curriculum overhaul, arguing it was too focused on “discovery learning," and appointed its own review panel. That study group is expected to hand over its initial findings next week. Critics argue the UCP’s advisory group is short on actual teachers. Fights over layoffs, classroom sizes and spending continue to exacerbate tensions between Alberta and some in education circles.

Canada ranked fourth in the world in reading skills – behind Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Guangdong (China), Singapore, and Macao (China) – in the latest PISA results, which measure the abilities of 15-year-old students around the world. But if Alberta were a country, it would rank third in reading, the survey said.

Experts warn against putting too much emphasis on global standings and argue PISA should not be used in isolation when measuring success. Richelle Marynowski, a mathematics education and evaluation expert at the University of Lethbridge, expects Alberta’s PISA results to be used as rhetorical weaponry.

“We use PISA to justify all sorts of things. You can use it to justify: ‘Look, we’re doing great. Let us be,'" said Prof. Marynowski, who was part of the previous government’s curriculum review effort. “We can use it to say: ‘But we’re not increasing [our rankings] so we need to make things better.’"

PISA comes with a plethora of problems. It tests 15-year-old students, but jurisdictions do not teach students the same thing at the same time, she said. What one country – or province within a country – may teach 14-year-olds may not happen until students hit 16 years of age elsewhere, for example. Some countries game the system by preventing weaker students from participating in the exams, Prof. Marynowski added. So while the results do show Canada and Alberta are doing well over all, PISA should not drive the education debate.

Stu Henry, the superintendent for Red Deer Public School District, argues PISA results validate Alberta’s current education system.

“I do find it very fascinating that we’re looking at pulling apart the system these days,” he said, pointing to proposals such as implementing a voucher system or tying classroom funding to performance targets rather than enrollment numbers.

Mr. Henry acknowledges the danger in overemphasizing PISA, but argues it deserves to be part of Alberta’s education debate.

“If we had horrible results, I know that it would be weaponized,” Mr. Henry said.

“So to me, it is fair game that if we are literally at the top of the planet for our results, then there should at least be some acknowledgement that we’re doing a lot right.”

Colin Aitchison, spokesman for Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said PISA provides evidence of weakness.

“While we welcome Alberta’s climb in global rankings, our increase is the result of a downward trend, not an improvement in Alberta’s scores," he said in a statement. "There is always room for improvement, and we will look at all opportunities to strengthen our education system so we can see increasing scores, in addition to climbing global rankings.”

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