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Quality versus Quantity
by Melinda Cook, Director of Curriculum

Assessment in education is currently a "hot topic". Though this is not a profound statement, it took me four attempts to phrase this opening. In my first attempt I used the phrase "educational assessment"; I discarded it because so much of the assessment being conducted isn't, in fact, educational. In my second attempt I tried the phrase, "Currently, assessment in education..."; I discarded it because I felt it might imply the focus on assessment is a passing trend. I do not believe this to be true. In my third attempt I wrote, "In education assessment is..."; I discarded it because assessment is currently a hot topic everywhere!

We are now living in a world that is heavily driven by accountability. A customer service representative at a call centre expects to have calls monitored for quality assurance. A trucker may drive a rig carrying a sticker saying, "How's my driving?", and a phone number for motorists to call to report on it. As educators, we too expect to be held accountable.

We understand how essential formative assessment is in facilitating learning. Well-designed, timely formative assessments contribute tremendously to student learning. The development, administration, analysis, and reporting of such formative assessments, however, is extremely time-consuming. We must use professional judgment to weigh the benefit of the information gathered against the cost of the time and resources consumed. We must ensure the assessments are of high quality, not high quantity.

The same is true for any "accountability" program. Welldesigned, timely formative assessments can contribute tremendously to teacher learning. Although there are programs in place that administrators use to evaluate teacher performance, a belief has been perpetuated that student results on standardized tests are an accurate reflection of teacher performance. The damage that is being done to our education system because of this myth is considerable.

I believe the most damaging aspect of the current regime of standardized tests in New Brunswick is how results have been used to demoralize students and teachers. As teachers, we know student performance cannot improve when a child is constantly reminded that he/she is "a failure". The students and teachers in New Brunswick have been bombarded by the erroneous message that we are inadequate. Many international organizations (an example being the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) deem the Canadian education system to be among the best in the world, yet our internal messaging is that we are doing poorly. Intellectually, it makes no sense, but emotionally it harms us.

Recently, there has been some media coverage concerning mathematics assessment results in the Moncton area because there is a belief that student learning has not improved over time. Since the standardized mathematics assessments that have sparked the debate have been implemented, the curriculum has changed, resources have changed, standards have changed, and students have changed. There is no baseline for comparison! There have been tremendous improvements in elementary mathematics education in the last few years, but the external assessments do not reflect this.

Last year, teachers responded very negatively to the reading portion of the Grade 9 English Language Proficiency Assessment, because of concerns with regard to the quality of the assessment instrument. Teachers were upset because they felt the test, written several years ago for Alberta students, was not suitable for our New Brunswick students because of contextual inconsistencies. (Words such as bannock and tiramisu were used, cultural references to Kmart were made, topics taught in grade 11 in New Brunswick were included, etc.). The tests were marked and the results made available, but for teachers who had seen the test, those results held little meaning.

We live in a world in which we can easily be overwhelmed by information. One of the most important skills we must teach our students is to carefully analyze and evaluate information. We must remain cognizant of such critical thinking ourselves. We must not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the quantity of information that is available to us. As teachers we owe it to ourselves and to our students to demand quality in all things, including assessment and accountability.

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