Assessment in education: say what?

Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.
Kofi Annan

I read a report in the local paper recently that awakened my frustration with the manner in which the press frequently covers matters related to education. Implicitly (and almost explicitly) the article lends support to the claim that “time on task” is the answer to virtually any existing educational deficit. By doing so such articles continue the trend of simplistic analysis of a very complex issue. It is the instructional equivalent of the oft-paraded boast that New Brunswick high schools graduate more students today than they did 30 years ago. Neither time on task (as a solution) nor graduation statistics (as proof of success in the system) provides the kind of detailed analysis of the system that might help people understand how broken that system really is.

If we still had investigative journalism that could take the time needed, a story could be told of empty curricula wrapped in theoretical educational dogmatism, schools overburdened with the attempted implementation of social engineering, and classrooms as sites for ongoing experimentation in service of someone’s pet educational theory. It is far sadder and more dire than a simple addition of days can indicate.

As education has struggled, at the university level, to present itself as a viable social science in its own right – on a par with psychology, sociology, history, etc – it has been driven increasingly by the desire to present its claims as rooted in research and the scientific method. In itself, this isn’t so bad. It has long been my contention, however, that positioning education in such a way does little to actually serve students. For all of the talk of “student-centred” instruction, the theories that underpin the actual practice of such instruction view young people more as lab rats or commodities than they do complex and diverse human beings.

How appropriate that just around the time I was thinking about this issue the Department of Education should release the latest results of its provincial assessment program. Be prepared for any number of follow-up editorials and/or commentaries pointing to the number of days students are out of the classroom, whether it be because teachers are involved in some form of professional development or a particularly harsh winter. In either case (or any other), it remains my contention that pointing to “time on task” is nothing more than continuing evidence of the lack of political will necessary if we are to take a hard look at the state of our educational system.

Consider: the prevailing view in our system – for the better part of three decades now – is that holding a student back a grade when he/she has failed to meet expectations is tantamount to inhumane. What is far more destructive, in my estimation, is moving a student forward into an environment where the resources to address any deficit are lacking. The young person in question falls further behind with each passing year but “accommodations” are made to ensure that forward progress is not interrupted. I can’t avoid mentioning the occasions, when I was teaching, where transcripts from middle school occasionally revealed students entering high school without having passed a single course in Grade 8. From the system’s perspective, it was simply time for such a student to move on.

Such practices as “anecdotal report cards” – ostensibly an improvement over the old percentage or letter grades – simply obscure further an already murky picture of achievement. Teachers write accounts of student progress in light of “outcomes” – a term I personally despise because it does not offer anything definitive – rather than assign a “grade”, something that high schools, universities and community colleges will demand as a student moves through our educational system.

And then the anomaly: amidst all the “outcomes”, along comes the provincial assessment results. Reported how? As percentages! Now, admittedly, these percentages are not percentages as most of us of a certain age would remember them. These are not marks per se; rather, they indicate the percentage of students who have achieved an “appropriate” level of literacy. Now I ask you: how many people are truly aware of that distinction? For most, using the grade 2 reading assessment as an example, the results mean that 73.8% of students “passed”. Things are apparently looking up by Grade 9: 80.4% of those students “passed”.

But let’s look at this from the perspective of another measure. We routinely hear that New Brunswick has an adult functional illiteracy rate of between 50-60%. In other words, when people find themselves in the real world of the workplace and day-to-day living, some 50-60% of adults struggle with basic tasks such as reading instructions, filling out an application, etc. Based upon provincial results, surely that functional illiteracy rate should be closer to 20%?

At what point will someone point to this glaring discrepancy? Surely it suggests that something is amiss in our assessment practices at the very least. But, more importantly, these assessments prevent the kind of careful scrutiny of programs that might lead to real improvement. Where you might ask?

Curriculum, curriculum, curriculum. Teachers and educational systems need to reacquire an appreciation for fundamental skills. “Educational practice” is virtually the sole concern of education programs at universities. What has been lost in our current system is concern for what it is we expect students to KNOW. Until such time as we return to an appreciation of the central place that knowledge plays in nurturing reading and writing ability, math skills and, most importantly, critical thinking, the disparity between reported “results” on provincial assessments and more objective measures of adult literacy and numeracy will remain. In fact, results massaged in the service of political optics will probably increase any such disparity. In the immediate term, the student suffers; in the long term, we all do.

And the winner is . . . .

The quality of a leader is reflected in the standards they set for themselves.
– Ray Kroc

Blaine Higgs is the new leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick. Truly, a change has come and is coming. Understandably, a great many of those who are busy with their lives, and have little ongoing interest in politics, might shrug if given this news. “Change”, if you were to do a survey of all elections just about anywhere, is the recurring theme of well over 90% of them. Certainly it has featured prominently in any I’ve either been in myself or watched from afar.

But this is different. I say that (and I can already hear the sceptics sighing) because I know Blaine Higgs. I have been there to watch him when he was the Finance Minister in David Alward’s government. I have been privy to a number of the arguments that were had over the path Blaine wanted to follow and the opposition he experienced in trying to implement certain policies and plans.

I am not overstating the case when I say that I never once saw Blaine diverge from a principled position he had adopted. The objections raised to certain of his plans were almost exclusively “political” in the worst sense of the word. On occasion, he could be overruled but never once did I see him compromise on an issue of principle for the sake of political expediency. I wonder how many politicians of any age can say that.

The manner in which he was selected was the purest form of democracy. With few exceptions, a cast of volunteers comprised the support staff responsible for the conduct of the actual election. Considering that from beginning to end that meant some 13-15 hours behind registration desks or manning polling stations, their efforts should be acknowledged.

And then there were the supporters of the various candidates. While each ballot signaled a reduction of actual votes cast, the number willing to hang in until the end was remarkable. I was personally involved as a scrutineer and one of my roles had me observing a mobile poll provided for those who could not endure the long line-ups. Any number of elderly and disabled delegates were determined that they would make their choice known, regardless of the waiting, the heat in the athletic centre or any other reason that might make someone depart. Again and again, I was convinced that a great many people felt that THIS leadership election really mattered.

And, yes, I am among those who believe that this was a truly remarkable day. We live in an age where cynicism and politics are commonly combined in the minds of a great many. Watching our neighbours to the south, it’s easy to see why. But we don’t need to look beyond our own borders. I will allow Blaine Higgs and the elected members to outline the failings of the current Gallant government. But one of the many things that makes Blaine Higgs different is his willingness to acknowledge the systemic problem that afflicts politics in New Brunswick.

Traditional political culture demands that the opposition condemn virtually everything the government does and that the ruling party dismiss as foolhardy or absurd anything the opposition might suggest. Blaine Higgs wants to build a new paradigm, one where a succeeding government builds on the achievements of the preceding one, rather than tearing down all that came before just because the other government did it; one that promises only to govern well and in the interest of all citizens, rather than promising specific things to specific groups in hopes of garnering support.

Make no mistake: this is new. I happen to think it is an idea that has been around for some time but never before have we had someone who is as willing to put it to the test in a real way. Blaine Higgs has said that his first priority is the province of New Brunswick and its people; second is politics. I would argue that if you take care of the first priority, the second will take care of itself.

In fact, the two are really, in an ideal world, the same. “Politics” comes from a Greek word meaning “relating to citizens”. Blaine Higgs was elected as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of New Brunswick through an appeal to our best selves. He wants to stop waste – of people and resources – and to promote common sense and real solutions based on evidence and analysis.

In a strange but appropriate paradox, Blaine Higgs is the realistic idealist New Brunswick needs for its next Premier. He is an idealist who believes that people want the best and are willing to participate in achieving that best where and when they can. He is the realist who knows that no ideal can be reached without clear direction and hard work. Now that’s a vision for the future that any New Brunswicker, of any party, should be ready to support.