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Large group of students.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Alberta is phasing out its benchmark province-wide achievement tests for students in favour of what it says are more comprehensive computer-based exams.

Education Minister Jeff Johnson says the new approach will better assess a student's creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving – not just test for core knowledge in numeracy and literacy.

"It's much more centred around the student and focused on informing the learning, while we will be able to pull out our (comparative) benchmarks as a province," Johnson told a news conference Thursday at a downtown school.

The tests – called Student Learning Assessments – will still be administered to students in Grades 3, 6, and 9.

But Johnson said they will now be given at the start of the school year rather than at end as with the current provincial achievement tests, also known as PATs.

That way, said Johnson, if the tests identify a need for extra help, the student can get it immediately rather than waiting for the following school year to begin. Testing at the start of the year also further divorces the test results from the performance of the schools themselves, he said.

"One of the main criticisms we've had from PATs are groups that take the results and try and rank every one of our schools across the province without looking at all the other metrics that are involved," he said.

"Students and teachers are transient. So when you do the tests at the start of the year, you can't tie those results necessarily to a specific teacher or specific classroom or even a specific school."

The assessments will begin with Grade 3 students in the fall of 2014 and expand to Grade 6 in 2015 and to Grade 9 a year after that.

The PATS are designed to determine if students across the province are learning what they are supposed to be learning and gauge how well all students are meeting provincewide standards.

Johnson said that hasn't changed, but said the focus will be more on making sure students are getting the help they need.

The tests are still being developed and while the plan is to go digital, students more comfortable with pen and paper will still be able to write the tests that way.

Johnson said even though the tests are going on computer, they will not be simplified.

"Just because it's digital doesn't mean were just moving to a point-and-click multiple choice [format]," he said.

Carol Henderson, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, said it was time for a change.

"We know that students experienced undue stress [with the tests] and schools were unfairly compared without regard for the unique circumstances under which they operated," she said.

"Teachers knew all along there was a better way."

Jacquie Hansen, president of the Alberta School Boards Association, said the change will broaden the amount of information available to both schools and families.

"We're going to be able to take that information and we're going to be able to use it quickly with a quick turnaround with parents," Hansen said.

Johnson said it costs about $6-million a year to run the tests, and said it won't cost more to run the new assessments.