Alberta Teachers' Association wants international tests scrapped

High school exams may be done for another year, but the conversation around standardized tests continues.

Federal government spent $6.8 million having 22,000 students write them

Alberta school boards have the option to cancel provincial achievement tests for Grades 6 and 9 during this school year. (Getty Images)

High school exams may be done for another year, but the conversation around standardized tests continues.

The Alberta Teachers' Association wants to see students in this province stop participating in international exams, saying even though we regularly score above average, the costs outweigh the benefits.

ATA president Mark Ramsankar appeared on Alberta@Noon to discuss the issue.

Find an excerpt of that conversation below. 

Q: First off, could you tell me what exactly are these international exams you think the government should scrap? How exactly do they work?

A: The international exams are set up where you take random samples of 15-year-old students. They're subject to the standardized exam in English or math, and then the data is collected and rankings are then pulled together. The [Programme for International Student Assessment] PISA exam is one of the ones we have a big concern with. It's run from an organization called OECD, and essentially we pay money to participate — to gather information that we already know about Alberta students.

Q: When you say we're paying to be part of it, how much money?

A: The last round cost us $300,000 in terms of Alberta alone. The federal government for example put in $6.8 million so we could have in the neighbourhood of 22,000 students across the country writing these exams.

Q: What kind of effect do you think these exams have in the classroom?

A: The exam is data that's collected. Then it's gathered and taken away. By the time the teacher gets the results of those exams, the students who have been subjected to those exams have moved on.

Q: These international exams are also used to rank Canada internationally. Don't you think there's a benefit for Canada to be seen on the world stage, and for its quality of education to be recognized internationally?

A: Not when you're comparing students differently, or different systems. When you think of all the education systems across the globe, they're not all standard. The contexts are not the same. You may be writing a math exam, but a student in rural Alberta is not the same as a student in urban Shanghai. So when you're looking at comparators, you've got an apples and oranges situation.

Q: It's fair to say no system would be perfect, but isn't it better to say Canada stepped up to the plate to be part of it than just withdrawing the information and not being part of it at all?

A: It's the use of the information that becomes the issue. These tests, for example the PISA results, have begun to influence education practices in countries where countries then start to modify their systems and overhaul their education systems simply to improve their rankings — not to improve the education per se of a child.

Q: You mention you've seen certain school systems be influenced by the PISA exam so they can have a higher ranking. Have you seen that here in Alberta?

A: Alberta focuses on the needs of students. That's why we're working so hard on trying to improve the testing program.

Q: Does that mean you wouldn't support standardized testing at the end of semesters either way?

A: The standardized testing at an end of a term in a random sample to test the system — that's a different use. When we're talking about standardized testing, the important questions would be, "Who is the test for? What are you trying to test? Who collects the data? And for what purpose?"

That was an excerpt of an interview with ATA president Mark Ramsankar on Alberta@Noon.

Listen to the full interview here