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Alberta UCP leader Jason Kenney proposes changes to school testing in Alberta

Allison Pike is the president of the Alberta School Councils Association, which represents 1,500 school councils across the province. She said testing puts children under 'unnecessary stress' at a young age.

David Fuller/The Globe and Mail

Jason Kenney has promised that a United Conservative Party government would assess Alberta’s youngest learners in literacy and math, reigniting the debate around the value of standardized testing.

Mr. Kenney’s education platform in the provincial election includes lifting a cap on the number of charter schools in the province, pausing the curriculum review with the intention of broadening consultations and introducing a back-to-basics approach that would do away with “discovery learning” and prioritize, for example, standard algorithms for teaching math.

Among the most significant proposed changes are new assessments in language and math for children in Grades 1, 2 and 3, and reintroduced provincial achievement tests (PATs) for eight-year-olds and nine-year-olds in Grade 3.

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In the previous government, the Alberta NDP made the student learning assessments optional. The party said in an e-mail statement that the focus should be on assessments done in the beginning of the school year to help teachers develop education plans for their students.

It also said that it will continue to address areas of concern, including math, through its curriculum review, and promised to fund enrolment growth by ensuring there are enough teachers and resources in classrooms.

Provincial governments in many parts of the country are increasingly in favour of standardized testing as a way to measure how students are performing. In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has vowed to introduce broader standardized testing, although the details have been vague.

Supporters of standardized tests argue that they measure how students are learning the curriculum and keep the education system accountable. But, critics worry that they are used by some as a way to rank schools and even to provide real estate agents with a marketing tool for families.

Jacqueline Leighton, a professor in clinical child psychology at the University of Alberta, said while governments may believe standardized tests are an objective measure of performance, research shows that they don’t tell educators and parents much about why a child is doing poorly.

“Standardized testing and the results don’t tell us why scores might be low. So jumping to a conclusion as to why they might be low is very harmful and dangerous,” Prof. Leighton said.

“It only provides a screen for further investigation as to what might be going on," she added.

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Since the release of the UCP education platform, Mr. Kenney’s party said it has heard concerns from parents on the PAT’s and it would consult further “to determine the best way of conducting such basic assessments.”

But parents are divided on the plan to have young students write standardized tests.

Allison Pike, president of the Alberta School Councils’ Association, said her members have said they want an approach where young children are identified if they have learning challenges, but not through a pressure-filled test.

“What I hear from parents across the province is the amount of stress that [standardized testing] puts on children at a young age is very hard,” said Ms. Pike, who lives in Lethbridge. “We need to look after the mental health of our students. Are we putting them under unnecessary stress that they don’t need at such a young age?"

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Nhung Tran-Davies, a parent of three in Calmar who has been vocal about changing the math curriculum to return to teaching the fundamentals, said she welcomed more testing because it serves as an important measure of how the system is working.

“It is so important to know early on how our children are doing so that we can catch deficiencies early,” she said. “The teachers also need to step back from that negative connotation that they feel they are being judged by provincial tests. We’re not judging the teachers. We just want to know as parents how our children are progressing and if there is a weakness, we want to intervene as early as possible.”

Teachers, however, say that standardized tests are a step in the wrong direction. Greg Jeffery, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, said student learning assessments, administered near the beginning of the school year, are “much more suitable" because they serve as a diagnostic tool that teachers can use and the results are shared with parents and students.

“We’re not talking about the ability then to do a provincial ranking of schools based on the results of the test,” he said.

Mr. Jeffery added: “Parents know that the best information about their child comes from their child’s teacher and not from the results of a snapshot in time, like a standardized test.”

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