Missing the mark

Russell Wangersky
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It’s all about results, isn’t it? That’s the measure that seems to pervade a parent’s experience with the education system.

This week, new international test score numbers were released that show that Canada’s ranking in academic performance is slipping. Not only that, performance in this province is slipping even further that the national average.

Is it a cause for great concern? I don’t know.

I don’t want to sound like an old codger, but standardized testing is an interesting beast, and something new to me when I became a parent instead of a student. I’m not sure it’s all it’s cracked up to be — especially if it becomes the be-all and end-all of the measurement of teachers, schools and even education systems.

Years ago, I was fascinated to watch the way schools and teachers trembled at the dangers of performing badly in upcoming reading comprehension tests for grade school students. They would prepare sample tests that matched the known structure of upcoming standard tests, and then work with their students, sometimes over and over again, to help those students get the highest mark possible on that particular criteria reference test.

Teaching the test

In other words, considerable time would be spent not on teaching students how to study for a broad-ranging test or even how to break down new concepts, but on how they could essentially understand, and to a degree, beat, the known and expected model of a given test.

The same thing happens for students working towards public exams in high school: they’re told over and over again to review past public exams to get a better grip on the questions — and some teachers will tell you that they build their lesson plans to culminate not with reaching course guidelines, but directly with the anticipated questions on provincial exams.

So which comes first? The test performance, or the education?

What’s the goal here? Is it to shape students to perform well within the tight guidelines of one performance-measuring test or another, or is it to teach them how to learn and to study, so that they can meet the challenges of a broad range of testing and marking criteria?

This might be unfair, but my view of it is that a focus on preparing students for particular ranking tests cannot be described as top-flight education. Fact is, it’s essentially a fallback plan for an education system that’s far weaker than it might at first appear. Knowing that students who might take the test cold might be unable to grasp basic concepts, scores are “cheated up” by deliberately focusing and drilling on the known elements of the reference test.

If you can’t address the whole problem of weak performance, then you can at least mask it by last-minute boning up on the crucial concepts.

It’s also an interesting message to be sending to students — not so much that you need to know a subject and be able to study it, but that you need to first and foremost know the structure of the tests involved, because it’s the score performance that matters, rather than how well you understand the material.

Sure, those who really understand the material well should do well on such tests anyway — but they may well lose points because they haven’t applied all the tricks as well.

How bad is it?

The interesting thing is that, despite a focus on performing the best we can on national and international reference tests, we’re still sliding academically. In truth, the slide may be far worse than we realize, because it’s being masked by careful planning.

The bottom line? There’s got to be a difference between test scores and education.

I know the teachers my children talk about are not the ones who best drill them on the parameters of whatever standardized tests — provincial, national, etc. — they’re going to take in the next few days.

The teachers who leave a mark are the ones who bring new things to the table, who are creative and involved and willing to push their students to new ways of looking at things.

And they are magic.

Making kids into standardized test performers prepares them well for those particular standardized tests.

I’d hope that the education system was more concerned with producing students who can think independently, understand study techniques, and gravitate to subjects that interest and excite them.

With the current concentration on the navel-gazing of performance on standardized tests, I don’t think it is.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: Canada

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Recent comments

  • Toby
    December 12, 2010 - 20:45

    I agree that our K-12 education system leaves a lot to be desired here...

  • dennis brown
    December 11, 2010 - 11:11

    Nice article. I wonder if this is why students have problems adapting to first year in university where the emphasis is on learning on your own.