Trust Part Deux

So the Saskatchewan government is going to spend a cool 6 million to implement standardized testing in it’s first year (2013). Kudos that we’re actually calling a spade a spade here, and not inventing some fake name like “assessment for learning” when we really mean standardized testing. I have yet to see a shred of data that says large scale standardized testing does a lick of good to improve student achievement. In fact, I’ve seen a whole lot of it that says it hurts students achievement for a whole host of reasons. This is without even touching all the possible misuses for this data school divisions in other countries are inventing to use it for (oh hai America!). I have a pretty good hunch though, that the government will tell us all that we have no way of knowing about our students’ achievement and if it’s improving or not without these comprehensive, large scale, fancy new standardized tests. Naturally this is false. If I was a good blogger I’d link to how small scale, small group tests yield the same data, but it’s summer. And we all know I’m a terrible blogger (case in point, I still insist on two spaces after a period. Deal with it.) Uh, maybe I’ll come back to it.

For the sake of this blog post, let’s pretend there weren’t 6 million other things in education that are being seriously underfunded right now. We’ll ignore large class sizes, crumbling buildings, atrocious (embarrassing even) First Nations graduation rates, lack of appropriate support staff, etc. etc. Things are pretend lovely in the state of education in Saskatchewan, and the government genuinely wants to help do what they are so desperately claiming these tests will do – increase communication between schools and stakeholders and improve student achievement.

That is what the government is claiming these tests are all about – establishing clear communication with stakeholders in education so problem areas and interventions can be implemented early in a child’s educational scenario. Parents will have a better picture of how their children are doing since they will get the data. Teachers will be able to better address student areas of difficulty as they will receive the data in September of the right year. Divisions will be able to plan professional development as they will get data on their teachers. The province will be able to properly allocate funds for struggling schools/programs since they can look at school level data. When you say it like this 6 million sounds like a bargain.

However, let’s get real. There is no money for interventions or external supports for students who are struggling. This government has spent it’s time cutting those budgets. So to pretend that after spending 6 million on tests that will identify issues teachers already know exist that magically something different will happen is insulting. That’s right. Teachers around the province right now already know what those tests are going to say, and more than an hour long multiple choice computer test could ever tell them, right now. With their limited resources, they practice what amounts to educational triage and try their very best to secure supports for their students who are most in need. They deal at the classroom level with what they can. Ask any teacher in the province come the month of October for a description of any of their students and compare it to the data received from the tests. Be prepared for some shock and awe, as these teachers who “aren’t transparent” will have a detailed description of where that student is at, what things could be tried to help that student improve, and some excellent hypotheses as to where things may have gone sideways in the past.

So, what could the government be doing with all that cash? That would actually be useful to parents and stakeholders? How about a standardized reporting procedure that actually makes sense? Instead of complaining about how teachers don’t communicate what they know (you ever tried to communicate daily/weekly/monthly with 120 different sets of parents?) why don’t we make it easier for teachers to communicate? I don’t mean online grade books with rows of percentages (that’s not communication folks, as much as you love those numbers) I mean actual communication about what outcomes students are meeting, which they are not, and resources so parents can help if they are so inclined. Help beyond harassing the teacher for assignment due dates that is.

Seriously. Our report card system is slightly better than a joke. I spend a lot of time reading cumulative folders for my struggling students trying to glean information on what they can actually do in mathematics. It’s fairly telling that I often just want to throw the whole thing in the garbage. Elementary teachers slave over these documents, spending more hours than should be legal, and are forced to use these weird descriptors that are completely unhelpful to me. I assume they are even less helpful to parents as they don’t attend PD in edu-jargon-ese. They aren’t trained to read “Johnny sometimes can solve simple equations involving positive integers” as “Johnny failed the algebra unit” because poor Johnny is actually supposed to be able to solve complex equations using both positive and negative numbers by the end of grade 8. Parents don’t know the contents of the curriculum inside and out, they don’t know when a sometimes is “okay, I’m just learning like I’m supposed to” and when it means “DANGER DANGER, SERIOUSLY FALLING BEHIND HERE.” A report card that let teachers be honest about a students progress over the year, as well as facilitated parent understanding as to how this progress related to grade level norms AND was somewhat simple for teachers to use? I think someone could do this for less than 6 million. Heck, I volunteer to do it for one! What a steal!

Now, let’s imagine that the government took the left over money from improving our reporting procedures and developed some parent resources. You know, so parents were able to do something more than wring their hands and say “well, I was never really good at math so…” or “this is all so different from when I went to school, I don’t even understand it.” The vast majority or parents genuinely want to help their kids do better. It’s not their fault our approach to curriculum has changed and it’s crazy to think they’d instantly like something completely unlike what they expect. Or that they’d even know where to start. It’s also a wee bit insane to think teachers should take on the burden of developing resources for parents on top of their current workload. There are excellent resources out there. Ones way better than random worksheets and flash cards, and less frustrating than the guessing games that current occur at homework time. Curating the best of these and tieing them directly to common areas of difficulty that students encounter, plus offering workshops for parents should be the government’s job, not up to individual school divisions to piece together with their limited resources. Not to be too crazy, but I know a teacher or two who would take this on for a million as well.

So, in theory, I’ve found an alternate solution to the government’s problem AND I’ve saved them 4 millions dollars. My plan also has an unbelievably low cost in years 2+, unlike the current plan. Any chance we can get these savings reinvested into education Sask Party?

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