Assessment – The Weakest Link In Education Reform

Many of us agree that schools must change. That they should be more than social clubs or stepping stones to careers. That they must strive to engage learners in the here and now, which is the only way to prepare them well for a demanding future. But what does it mean to be prepared? According to Alberta’s Inspiring Education initiative, it means being “an Engaged thinker and an Ethical citizen with an Entrepreneurial spirit”. In short, an educated individual should embody “the three E’s”. This outcome wasn’t dictated by politicians and bureaucrats, but came out of province-wide consultations. Which means that, by and large, Albertans agree on this newly defined purpose for education. And honestly, it would be hard to disagree with such an uplifting goal. I wrote more on Alberta’s education reform here and here.

But setting a goal was only a first step in an otherwise arduous journey. Actual measures, supposed to assist schools in delivering “the three E’s”, met with disapproval and resistance. And with hindsight, that shouldn’t surprise. My explanation for the ensuing storm can be found here. In the same blog post I offer some thoughts on how to move the change process forward, and why the way we measure success will be key. Let me elaborate on that last point.

As a community, we are all united in our goal to raise exemplary citizens. But how do we know whether or not we achieved our goal? How do we recognize and measure “the three E’s”? How do we evaluate our successes and failures? Because without reliable and comprehensive assessment criteria we can’t really defend any educational model, be it traditional or new. To me, this is the weakest link in education reform!


Like in many parts of the world, Alberta’s current assessment approach is based on standardized testing. A high score on province-wide diploma exams is taken as indicator for successful schooling. If diploma scores are lower than teacher assigned scores, the quality of learning is questioned. To stay competitive in the world, Alberta also participates in testing organized every three years by PISA-OECD (Programme for International Student Assessment- Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). And, as argued here, falling scores on such tests are taken to indicate failure of schooling.

But are the results of standardized testing an accurate measurement for how well we meet our new educational goals? Are they really telling us how well Alberta’s students are progressing towards “the three E’s”? The reality is, they aren’t. Although useful, standardized tests are by no means sufficient for assessing the competencies we want our students to have. And because you get only what you measure, the prominence of standardized testing in assessing our schools’ output can only result in standardized and compliant cohorts of graduates. People who are good at what’s on the test but not necessarily at what isn’t on it. And attributes such as initiative, collaboration, resilience, empathy, critical thinking, or oral communication aren’t. But aren’t such attributes essential to our graduates, too? And if they are, shouldn’t they be measured accordingly? My point is, if we want reform to succeed, the assessment must be aligned with the goals. Here is how.

  • Make extra-curricular student work count. Right now, most authentic and impactful work students do is extra-curricular and only superficially assessed, if at all. Students engage in many activities outside of their regular classes, for instance in the arts, sciences, or sports. And by doing that, they learn and practice exactly those skills absent from standardized tests. Then, doesn’t it make sense to include the extra-curricular learning in the assessment of a student’s performance? I think it does, and this would also help in personalizing education. How would we do it? For example, with rubrics where we’d gather feedback from mentors, trainers, coaches and team mates.
  • Expose school work to external audiences and get real-world feedback. Right now, what goes on inside the school walls stays there. Some work may get shared with families and school staff, but aspirations rarely go farther. But wouldn’t it help if unbiased members of the community and specialists provided opinions and feedback? If the work would be scrutinized from a real-world perspective? For some school projects, this would not only add validity to assessment but also change students’ perspective on the relevance of school work.
  • Put less emphasis on standardized testing. Right now, Alberta’s diploma exams consist predominantly of multiple choice questions, and weigh 50% of a graduate’s final mark. But, as I’ve explained before, diploma scores aren’t the best measurement for how well students assimilated the three E’s. Then, we should make them count less. We should adjust their weighting to how much they really tell us about our graduates’ competencies.

I know that bringing these ideas to life would amount to a reinvention of schooling. For one thing, schools would need to become truly integrated with the wider community. And they would require access to resources that are currently unavailable to them. But we must find a way. Doing the assessment right is vital for education reform. It’s the only way to make sure that we are headed in the right direction. The only way to know when we need to change course. Or if we can stick to what we’re already doing.











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