Where are school tests taking us?

May 1, 2003

"Wherever you can, count," said Francis Galton, founder of the late 19th-century Eugenics Society and one of the fathers of "mental measurement." A hundred years later, this thinking has taken firm hold in the educational establishment both in Canada and internationally.

The standardized testing movement now consumes millions of dollars and hundreds of hours that could be better spent on basic educational resources - like textbooks, teachers and adequate support services. All these things are still necessary, it seems, as no one has yet shown that testing, by itself, can improve learning.

No longer just a tool for program review or curriculum evaluation, test scores are increasingly used to create competition in education by publicly ranking schools according to test results. Testing is also a multi-million dollar industry with spin-offs in all directions.

Promoting the ever-expanding testing regimes is essential to this industry and governments are listening.

Until recently, the Ontario government was planning to extend its already intensive testing program to include annual assessments in every grade, from 3 to 11. Test-weary Ontario directors of education have asked for a three-year moratorium on this expansion plan.

Educational data gathering is no longer restricted to information about how much Jimmy learned about science last year.

Surveys have become regular testing companions, seeking to extract as much information as possible about Jimmy. What kind of a home does he come from? Are there any books there? Does he have a computer? How much money do his parents earn?

Some of the data gathering starts even before Jimmy goes to school and some of it continues to reflect what he does after he leaves school. Some of the surveys target teachers, parents, and administrators as well. All this information, integrated and cross-tabulated with standardized test scores, enables the creation of databanks about individuals and groups that are well beyond the mandate of any school system or any single government body.

Trading personal information for potentially better decisions on educational policy is a tricky business.

Judging from the massive protest against the interconnected databases once housed at Human Resources Development Canada, we are not comfortable with too much personal information in the hands of single agencies. Under siege for weeks, the department was finally forced to delink the databases in response to privacy concerns.

The current emphasis on cradle-to-grave data gathering through the education system could well dwarf the previous attempts at government record-keeping.

In a brand new development, the federal government has announced its intention to create the Canadian Learning Institute, a special agency to serve as a clearing house for educational information. Serious questions need to be asked about this initiative. Will data gathering become even more entrenched with a new home to accommodate it all? Will it lead to even more data gathering? Will more information really lead to better decision-making?

Some people think there already is lots of information. What's missing is the political will to make the changes necessary - reduce class size or improve access to early childhood programs.

Everyone would like educational policy that improves services for Canadian children.

But there is plenty of evidence that relevant data and good advice have not stopped governments in the past from ignoring the facts - such as, high test scores usually match up pretty closely with students from high-income families or schools serving high-income areas.

Eminent Canadian scientist and social activist Ursula Franklin made some astute observations about data gathering at a speech to a community group in 1994 "There is an enormous amount of information that has nothing to do with anything. There is a sort of civic landfill and you ought not to get into the business of civic landfill.

"If your aim is to change conditions, then there is a certain amount of information needed, but not more. After that, one needs to address the questions, 'Why does nothing happen? Why do some proposals that seem fairly reasonable, workable, and sensible never get beyond the lip service stage?' That requires a very different sort of knowledge. That is the knowledge of the structure of power."

Large-scale educational assessments should be seen as a power-shift in education, from parents and the local community to central organizations and institutions that are disconnected from the local context.

The battle between local and centralized decision-making in education is an old one, but the profusion of standardized testing gives the edge to central authorities. When educational services are centrally designed, delivered and evaluated, the local is pretty well out of the picture.

Fortunately, an informal "count me out" movement against excessive testing is gathering momentum around the globe.

Hundreds of teachers in Britain have recently voted to boycott the tests. Hundreds of parents in Alberta have requested that their children be exempted from the tests. A U.S. group is even suggesting that all politicians take all the tests.

If this were successful, it could be the final blow to Francis Galton's counting dream. And that could perhaps be "counted" as progress.

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