Children as Experimental Subjects, and Parents Flying Blind

Across Canada, there’s been a steady drumbeat of support from parents for standardised tests to “prove” that children are being properly educated. It’s not just us, of course: this was what US President G. W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind was supposed to be about as well.

Politicians love standardised tests. It shows — in one swell foop! — that they are “listening”, “responding”, “doing something about it”. Bureaucrats in the Education Ministries love them, too: it allows another point of control over classes and teachers. “There’ll be no more wasting time on diversions when test results will matter!”

Meanwhile, think tanks and public policy types also have a new tool: the stack ranking of schools that is possible once everyone is writing the same tests on the same day. But the insight this gives is less than stellar. I remember living in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and hearing how wonderful certain school districts were relative to others (including the one in the town we had settled in). A few years later it was revealed that at least one of those districts was manipulating the test results to report scores higher than the students had actually earned. Good for real estate values; not so good for education.

Amazingly, of course, private schools and charter schools tend to lead stack ranking lists. That these are preferred options for the think tanks generating the lists is probably a coincidence, right? Then, too, when the schools on the bottom of the list turn out to be those with antiquated facilities, in neighbourhoods where education may be compromised for other reasons, the answer is never to use this to lift these up — no, it’s always “let’s bash these teachers” for their “incompetence”.

Much of this nonsense dates back to the Thatcher years in Britain. What has amazed and surprised me in visiting Britain, however, is the sheer lack of faith in the results of their standardized testing regime. Would that such honesty — especially in politics — were possible in good old politically correct Canada!

As a parent, most of my children’s experiences with this sort of régime have occurred in British Columbia. (My children spent their elementary years in a combination of Montessori schools (the Montessori educational philosophy is resolutely in favour of individual learning assessment and not testing across a class, much less a “system”) and a School for Gifted Children (again, educating the truly gifted must be done on an individualised basis, although BC’s Foundational Skills Assessments were imposed by the province on this private school). My daughter completed her travails with the public schooling system in BC; my son is completing his in Ontario, which is not quite as far down the slippery slope at his high school levels.)

What Britain has discovered is that the very thing they had brought in to overcome the failings of the British Columbian testing system — that there is no external validation possible for a parent that what is being tested actually tests a level of competence appropriate on the world stage — is itself becoming a vehicle for the destruction of educational standards. “Be careful what you wish for…”

What Britain has done is to privatize the testing regime: schoolmasters select from amongst a variety of private sector suppliers of tests and supporting curriculum resources. Needless to say, in a country where state schools (what Canadians would call public schools) have mostly rigid catchment areas, each school looks to turn in the test results which make it look “better than average”. This, in turn, leads to an application of Gresham’s Law: light-weight curricula and tests push out more rigorous curricular schemes. Thus, the number of B+ and A results rise (making the school look better), but the actual quality of education falls.

Parents, meanwhile, are left to sort out, with little to no information, whether their local school with a B- to C average is merely filled with the inept, or whether it is struggling to maintain standards appropriate to our age against the manipulations of others.

This is important: a substandard education is the one thing almost every parent tries to avoid for their child.

Theoretically, the British system ought to allow schools to exceed each other by requiring a more rigorous programme, and more rigorous testing of outcomes. However, when it comes time to deal with the results, the combination of uninformed league tables stack-ranking schools without sufficient attention being paid to their approach in this regard — or the presumption at university or polytechnic admission that “an A is an A is an A” — combine to reward those who use second-class standards to make themselves (and their students) look better than they are, and punishes anyone who holds to an honest and rigorous accounting throughout. Gresham talked of the inferior quality of the counterfeit, clipped or re-alloyed coin against the honesty of true gold and silver — or of either relative to unbacked and overissued paper notes — and the decay these bring to a society which does not root them out is no less evident when “reading, writing and ‘rithmetic” (and all the others) are the subjects under discussion.

We have already eliminated many core subjects from our educational mix here in Canada, on the grounds of cost or “apparent irrelevance”. True — many employers are far more likely to prefer computer studies (for all those future office workers) in high schools than four or five years of Latin (which, “dead” language though it be, gives access to the past, consolidates fully one’s capabilities in English, opens the door to easier acquisition of the other Romance languages [French, Italian, Spanish], and opens all sorts of other paths for investigation (e.g. the transition from Classical civilisation, through to Western civilisation, and the existential crisis of the West that was the Renaissance where we as a society lost our nerve).

As my daughter notes, having studied Latin on her own recognisance at the University of British Columbia before heading off to Durham University in the UK to do her Bachelor’s Degree, it was this — and only this — that has finally consolidated her facility with English, her mother-tongue. Now, at last, grammar, spelling and poetic phraseology are put together into a facility with the language. (As someone with five years of high school Latin, I agree! — and was glad to see her make this decision on her own.)

Still, there is far more to teach than there is time or money available to support: choices must be made. At least, when I as a parent disagree with some of them, there are avenues for rectification. (In this era of eLearning, far more courses can be made available than any individual school could support, and credit should be given to British Columbia for investing in this, and allowing any student to take any eLearning course as part of their programme, or use them to accelerate their way through the necessary credits to finish high school early.)

But recall: this is the same system that used Foundational Skills Assessments twice in the elementary years, and Provincial Examinations twice in the high school years, to test for facility in English. Did these actually establish that?

If you think they did, then why the devil can’t the typical BC high school graduate spell a word consistently in a single paragraph? As someone who has both taught in BC’s university system and as a consultant worked with people in many BC companies, I see the results. (I might understand having learnt the word “wrongly”; that anyone can be tested and not be outright failed for the inconsistency takes my breath away. Yet all the people I know who took the provincial tests scored at least a B.)

So our examinations neither confirm that our children are learning what they ought to — there is no international standard of comparison, much less an actual stake in the ground that says “I don’t care if you agree or not, this is essential” (which would be a matter of educational philosophy grounded deeply in morality and a metaphysics of history). Instead we have turned the system over to dilettantes and ideologues and put no check or balance upon them.

Then we use the results to stack rank schools, influencing local real estate prices; demonstrate a preference for the private over the public; and to hammer teachers at contract negotiation time — plus fill hours of talk radio and give bullets for election pamphlets.

In Britain, at least, a parent could make the decision to find out what curriculum and testing regime is in use. They could consider relocation, if necessary, to be where a proper attention to standards is being maintained. Unlike BC or Ontario, Britain at least allows for headmasters to make curriculum choices. Here our Ministries dictate what shall be taught, how it shall be taught, when it shall be taught, and what resources may be used. They meddle in private schools as well, even when no money is provided to support students, on the grounds that there is a “public interest” in “standards”. But there is no public interest: it is bureaucracy tout court.

(Private schools in Britain, by the way, are no less horrid at trying to find schemes that maximize their “numbers” as are state schools. Just because one pays a fortune in tuition, the work of sorting out standards is not done.)

Then, too, schools must have faculty that think their students can progress: there is a reason that over 1/3 of all applicants to Oxford and Cambridge come from less than 200 schools, and the surprising reason the play and movie The History Boys has done so well is that here is an example of a school that no one would have expected make the effort to try and get six students who graduated their A-levels with 3 As considered by these institutions — and where there is not yet a common belief that the effort is a worthwhile investment. There are no shortage of schools today in the UK where not a single faculty member can be found to sign the application from a similarly well-equipped student. Is this an expression of “class” (and a perception of the “inappropriateness” of applying from “here”) — or the knowledge that those As are at best Bs on any honest scale?

So, back to Canada. Parents love mandatory examinations. We don’t want to face the fact that they examine to a local standard. We don’t want to recognize that our students’ As may well be Cs elsewhere, or that what we ask for in Grade 7 might have been expected at Grade 4 both elsewhere, and in our own past. This sets up a condition wherein standards can continue to slip and slip — and where the league tables (e.g. the ones the Fraser Institute publishes) can be used to further contaminate the system.

(Lest you think that I exaggerate, I shall point out that during my own lifetime I have watched pass marks to move on shift from 70% to 50% in Ontario, and content shift upward through the grades (when my children encountered it) from my own days. Russian schools offer only ten grades: high school is complete after Grade 8, and Grade 10 is the equivalent of our Bachelor’s degree. Russian schools also still do oral examination, where questions can be followed up, rephrased, etc., and students who have trouble with written replies on a time-limit have a chance to actually be tested.

At this juncture, despite all the good reasons one might have for complaining about teachers and their unions, we have to realize that the most compliant teaching regime possible would still be doing a substandard job in the face of the degradation of standards created by the educational bureaucrats and those who would experiment with our children’s lives unilaterally — and yet the As would be there, as would all the proof needed that the teachers had more than done their job.

Our children would simply be illiterate, innumerate, crippled and unable to compete when faced with the same globalisation that we have supported so strongly as “just the right thing” for our economy.

At least, if we forewent the current testing regime, we would, as parents, have to work one-on-one with teachers — and they with us.

Instead of dismissing a parental request to augment the curriculum as delivered, teachers would have to take requests to go beyond it seriously, for they would no longer have the test results to fall back upon to demonstrate they’ve done their job. Likewise, if there was a competitive regime for testing, parents could insist that their children sit certain ones (and be taught to the underlying curriculum assumptions) rather than simply accept what the Ministry wants to spoon-feed us.

Meanwhile, for parents who believe that the Arts and Humanities still matter, and that the purpose of education is cultural formation, standardised curricula are also a plague, for these days they tend to the “practical” and the repetition of “facts” from the natural and social sciences. These subjects should not be ignored — but there is a world of difference between teaching the attitude of the scientist, or learning a list of formulae and names to regurgitate for the test.

Do you want to break these monopolies? Then supporting provincial standardisation in any form is the last thing you should do.

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