Canada·LEARNING CURVE

The pandemic upset how we assess students. Experts worry that's also hampered recovery efforts

How student learning is measured is one element of the education system that's been upset by the pandemic. Students, parents and teachers alike worry about lost learning since March 2020, while education researchers decry Canada's lack of data showing where student learning is at — crucial information for targeting the supports needed to bridge pandemic gaps.

Lack of data about what students know now means we 'can't assess the gravity' of pandemic-affected learning

A woman with her two children are in a forest.
Elizabeth Mah is pictured with her two daughters, Olivia, left, and Jocelyn, in North Vancouver, B.C., on June 23, 2022. (Justine Boulin/CBC)

Some young learners are struggling to build early reading skills while others stumble over math concepts. Repeated pandemic pivots have left students out of practice with classroom learning, impacted their mental health and distanced them from peers. The CBC News series Learning Curve explores the ramifications of COVID-19 for Canadian students and what they'll need to recover from pandemic-disrupted schooling.


    The classroom has looked dramatically different for Jocelyn and Olivia Wong over the past three pandemic-affected school years — and it's led their mom to wonder how school disruptions have affected their learning.

    "It's important to me to find that balance of honouring their pace [of learning], while also ensuring that they're making progress toward a goal," said Elizabeth Mah, who is a single parent to the girls. 

    How student learning is measured — and the valuable data that emerges from conventional assessments — is another element of the education system upset by the pandemic. Changes happened at the classroom level, like exams dropped in favour of differently weighted assignments, right up to the cancellation of large-scale provincial and international tests. 

    Students, parents and teachers alike are worried about lost learning since March 2020, while education researchers decry Canada's lack of data showing where student learning is at — crucial information for targeting the supports needed to bridge any pandemic-related gaps.

    When schools suddenly closed in the spring of 2020, it halted Jocelyn's time attending kindergarten at a North Vancouver public school, and Olivia's stint in preschool. The following fall, Mah opted to home-school her girls for the 2020-2021 school year. 

    Now the sibling duo are finishing up Grades 1 and 2 at an independent nature school, which has benefited Jocelyn in particular. Not long before the pandemic, she was diagnosed with social anxiety and selective mutism, a disorder where she's unable to speak and communicate in certain social settings.

    Mah now collaborates with Jocelyn's teachers to assess the eight-year-old's progress — flexibility she values after running into barriers to accommodate Jocelyn in the public school system amid pandemic restrictions.

    Still, figuring out what kids know today seems very different from the traditional spelling tests, timed multiplication tables, final exams and standardized tests that Mah recalls from her own days as a student.

    "It's a totally different way of assessment than we grew up with, and so I think there's also that challenge as parents," she said. "I'm challenging my childhood … impressions of standardized testing."

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    Assessment data can 'make a difference' 

    Assessment has indeed changed and adjusted to the demands of the time, according to Darryl Hunter, an associate professor of educational policy studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. 

    Measuring what students know happens from the classroom level, up through to larger scale measurements across systems, he explained. Here's how:

    • Classroom: Teachers continuously gauge what kids know: before starting topics, during periodic check-ins and finally to measure what's been learned. Examples range from diagnostic reading assessments, up through to report cards. These measurements are often the highest stakes for families, as they can influence a student's trajectory, eligibility for scholarships or programs, course section and more.

    • School board: Boards may opt to measure learning via standardized testing, with the Canadian Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) as one possible example of what's used. Results can inform board decision-making.

    • Large-scale, provincial: Education ministries (or designates) schedule regular tests at different grades to measure learning against curriculum standards. Results can inform areas like curriculum development. Examples include B.C.'s Foundation Skills Assessments (FSA) or Alberta's Provincial Achievement Tests (PAT).

    • Large-scale, national/international: Ministries (or designates) arrange these tests. Results can inform educational policy, by indicating whether students are meeting set learning standards, often compared with students elsewhere in Canada or abroad. Examples include the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) and Program of International Student Assessment (PISA).

    Each level is valuable, says Hunter. In classrooms, he said, educators inform their teaching with assessment data — just like pilots rely on data from instrument decks, air-traffic controllers and the cabin to navigate passengers to a destination. 

    A portrait of an older, mustached man in glasses dressed in a black shirt and blazer.
    Darryl Hunter is a former teacher and administrator who went on to lead student assessment programs in Saskatchewan, B.C. and Ontario. He's now an associate professor of educational policy studies at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. (Laura Sou/University of Alberta)

    On a larger scale, he's also witnessed a politician start a budget meeting unconvinced about an education minister's bid for a literacy program, then ultimately commit more than $50 million, simply after hearing a compelling presentation of the latest PISA results.

    "It made a difference in kids' lives," Hunter said. "I'm a strong believer in assessment at a policy level for informing decisions and choices." 

    That said, he also says he feels assessment must be targeted, deliberate and connected back to supporting students — not simply used to create rankings. 

      Some want everything "in rank order," said Hunter, like it was "a team in the NHL or the CFL."

      "It really does a disservice to educators and students in schools if you think that you can treat that local school down the street as being another hockey rink.… It's just not an accurate representation of what happens in schools."

      • Do you have a question about how kids are recovering from pandemic-disrupted learning? Do you have an experience you want to share, or some ideas that could help get kids back on track at school? Send an email to ask@cbc.ca.

      A bid to reconsider standardized testing

      Grade 11 student Kaden Johnson, who attends school in Mississauga, Ont., says he recognizes the need to measure student learning. And with post-secondary life looming, he shares many high schoolers' concern about feeling out of practice at writing exams, due to the frequent pivots in pandemic classrooms. 

      Still, Johnson said he doesn't support just reprising the large-scale standardized testing conducted pre-pandemic, believing these tests are flawed, put unnecessary stress on students and feed worries that future educational paths will be irrevocably affected.

      Teachers have been creative and flexible in assessing students amid the pandemic, says Grade 11 student Kaden Johnson. He is opposed to returning to conventional large-scale standardized testing. 'If there's a time to really reconsider implementing it ... this would definitely be it.' (Submitted by Kaden Johnson)

      The 16-year-old is also unconvinced test results truly spur governments to act when it comes to increasing education funding to improve student learning. 

      "It's not like we're against assessments just because we don't want to write another test," he said. "We're really concerned about the state of our education system, and especially for the younger ones that are coming into it."

      Given the creative and more personalized ways teachers have been directly assessing students amid the pandemic, he added, "if there's a time to really reconsider implementing [standardized testing] and pushing it on students after all they've been through, this would definitely be it." 

      WATCH | Stilted relationships, missing interactions: Students share social impacts of the pandemic: 

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      'No data, no problem, no solution'

      Standardized testing is not perfect and has come under fire for reproducing stereotypes and stigmatizing certain neighbourhoods or schools, acknowledged Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, an education researcher and assistant professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.

      But, she said, "some data is better than no data." 

      While teachers have continued with classroom assessments — most likely creatively adapted to suit a myriad of pandemic conditions, she said — what's missing are system-wide measures of student learning "compared to what a similar group of students would have been able to do three years ago."

      Gallagher-Mackay, who has been researching COVID-19 and schools, feels both are needed.

      WATCH | What education ministries should be doing to amass student learning data:

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      More than two years into the pandemic, education researcher Kelly Gallagher-Mackay outlines basic steps education ministries and departments should be taking to gather data on what students have learned.

      Missing data due to cancelled large-scale testing leaves Canada "in a position where we can't assess the gravity of the problem created for kids' learning by the pandemic and the policy responses to it," she said.

      Some measurements will be returning soon, since several provinces have restarted annual standardized testing and the PCAP will come back in 2023. Yet several years into a pandemic has been a long time to wait, said Gallagher-Mackay.

      "No data, no problem, no solution. We have no data. We've under-responded to the problem of pandemic-learning impacts and we have, I think, been very slow on the solution side." 

      Assessment helps pinpoint where problems are and builds urgency around a required response, she said. Furthermore,  she thinks measuring what students know — and if systems are effectively helping those who have fallen off course amid COVID-19 — truly matters for Canada's future. 

      "Kids are resilient. They can cope. But we shouldn't expect them to do that without help."


      COVID-19 has affected the past three school years. How have your students fared amid pandemic schooling? What are you most worried about? Share your experiences and concerns with us at ask@cbc.ca (Be sure to include your name and location. They may be featured on air on CBC News Network.)

      ABOUT THE AUTHOR

      Jessica Wong

      Senior digital writer

      Based in Toronto, Jessica Wong covers Canadian education stories for CBC News. She previously covered arts and entertainment news, both national and international, and has been a digital journalist for CBC since 2001. You can reach her at Jessica.Wong@cbc.ca.

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