More Standardized Tests

Another reaction to the recently released PISA results is to suggest that we need more standardized testing in Alberta. Presumably this increase would lead to more accountability.

Some of you who know me well are about to be shocked. I don’t hate our Diploma Exams (12th grade exit exam). In fact, I used to be a big fan of them. These exams are written by Alberta teachers (not publishing companies), are field tested, and then analyzed by psychometricians. They are high-quality exams.

I’m not so fond of the Provincial Achievement Tests given at the end of grades 3, 6 and 9 in Alberta. Fortunately, they are on the way out, and will be replaced by diagnostic exams to be given at the start of those years. The intention is that teachers can use the data to help and support where needed. It’s a great idea in theory. Hopefully it maintains that intent in practice.

The problem with all these exams is that outside organizations started using them for the wrong reasons (ranking schools). Alberta Education made them entirely multiple choice, and the whole thing just wasn’t as useful to me as it once was.

Let’s back up to 1992 when I was a brand-new teacher. The internet wasn’t yet up and running. Email was just starting out. I taught in a small school where I was the only math teacher. There was no Twitter helping me collaborate with other math teachers. There were no blogs to read about how other people were teaching things. I had a textbook, a curriculum guide, and some students. That was it.

The diploma exam was the only feedback I ever got about whether my teaching was meeting Alberta expectations. I loved looking at my results. Some students surprised me. Some students disappointed me. What was really useful, though, was seeing which units went well and which units had room for improvement when I looked at my class data as a whole. I used the results to improve my instruction.

Early on, it did occur to me though, that the diploma exam might be given in the wrong year. The data I got about my 12th graders didn’t help them a bit, because they had moved on. It helped me help next year’s class, but did nothing for this year’s class. Maybe this exam would be more useful if given in 11th grade.

In the late 1990′s, however, outside institutions began using the provincial exam data to rank schools. This exercise is pure statistical lunacy. They didn’t control for poverty, parental education or any other relevant factor. They simply ranked schools. The folly of this ranking can be illustrated by looking at two schools.

Old Scona is in Edmonton, and is the #1 ranked school in 2012 according to the Fraser Institute. I am not criticizing them. It’s a school in my district, and I know some fine people who teach there. They do great things with great kids. Old Scona has selective entrance. They reserve their 120 spots for students whose grade 9 average is over 80%, and they further separate students by having them write a standardized entrance exam. Old Scona selects the best of the best in Edmonton Public Schools. According to the Fraser Institute, the average income of parents of Old Scona students is $103 300 per year. There are no special needs students at Old Scona, and 8.3% of their students are ESL.

Contrast Old Scona with Mistassiny in Wabasca, the Fraser Institute’s last ranked school from 2012 (#279 out of 279). It’s a whole different world. 79.8% of their students are ESL. 20.7% of their students have special needs. The average income of their parents is $30 600 per year. The town of Wabasca is mostly FNMI, and is surrounded by five reserves. This school serves a difficult population. They do not select their students.

If these rankings truly reflect the work being done in these schools by the teachers, then we should be able to swap the entire staffs of these two schools, and within a year or two, Mistassiny would be #1, right? It’s an absolutely ludicrous suggestion.

One year, I switched from a school with a high population of struggling learners to a school with a strong academic population. I taught one class that achieved a 92% average on the Math 30 Pure diploma exam. Only one student in the class failed to get honors on that exam (and he missed by a percent). People were patting me on the back. It was ridiculous praise. I was the same teacher I was the year before in a different setting. The reason, and the sole reason, that my class did so well was because they were really strong students. Any teacher would have had those results with that class. I didn’t suddenly become teacher of the year, simply because I switched schools. I was the same old teacher I always was.

Ranking schools was never the intention of these tests. The data, which could be useful to teachers, is being misused by those with political agendas.

Later on, in 2008, Alberta Education eliminated the written response portion of the Math and Science exams. This was a huge mistake, particularly since it coincided with the implementation of a revised curriculum focused on communication and personal strategies. You can’t assess those things on a machine scored test. The written questions provided students with the opportunity to demonstrate their strategies. The written questions were a great way to lend value to important parts of our curriculum like communication and problem solving. Losing them made the exams worse.

Further, I have come to understand that Alberta Education is now exploring ways to have English and Social Studies writing scored by machine as well. As I understand it, these guys are working with Alberta Education to come up with a way to mark the writing of Alberta Students.

Over the years, I have taught more than 30 classes that wrote diploma exams. I loved teaching those classes. I didn’t teach to a test. I taught the curriculum to the best of my ability, and the test results always seemed to come out all right. There were some classes and some students that did better than I expected. There were some classes and some students who did worse than I expected. I always looked at the data, though, and tried to figure out what I could have done better.

I don’t think provincial exams are a terrible evil. I do think the data are being misused. I do think we should consider moving the grade 12 exams back a year so we could still help those students who need it. I definitely think we need to re-institute written response on math and science exams, and leave the scoring of all writing to actual human beings.

Does Size Matter?

Defining my terms:

columnist is someone who writes for publication in a series, creating an article that usually offers commentary and opinions.

journalist collects, writes, and distributes news and other information, while refraining from bias. 

An Edmonton Journal columnist, one who could never be accused of even partially refraining from bias, has been arguing that class size reduction efforts in Alberta have been a waste of money. He cites research and even quotes the head of PISA (sounding dangerously like a journalist), but then conveniently leaves out relevant details that would contradict his argument (he is, after all, a columnist).

Some high performing countries (according to PISA) have larger class sizes than we do. The obvious conclusion is that we should increase class sizes, right? Not so fast, Mr. Biased Columnist. It’s only a logical conclusion if you ignore other all the other factors at play.

Currently, the norm in high schools in Alberta is to have teachers teach 7 out of 8 blocks. That means each semester I see four unique classes of around 35 students, for a total of 140 students per semester. I get an 80 minute preparation period every other day. Because of the already large class sizes, I spend most of my preparation time creating and grading assessments. Very little of my preparation time is spent on actually thinking about how to teach my material better.

Mr. Biased Columnist points out that places like Finland, Korea, Singapore (among others) have class sizes that are larger than in Alberta, and still perform better on PISA (this is fact). What he deliberately neglects to tell us (Logical fallacy of Omission – Stacking the Deck) though, is that teachers in those countries spend far less time in front of students than we do in North America. From the Singapore Ministry of Education:

The workload of our teachers varies across the year, depending on whether it is peak or non-peak periods. Over the entire year, our teachers teach, on average, about 15 hours per week. To deliver classroom teaching effectively, teachers also spend approximately twice as much time on teaching-related duties such as preparing for lessons, providing remediation for weaker students, setting and marking of homework and examinations.

They spend double their assigned time on teaching related duties compared to time spent teaching. I spend 1/8 of my assigned time on teaching related duties compared to time spent teaching.

Singapore has secondary classes in the neighbourhood of 40 students, but based on what I read above, they would only see two of those a day. That’s a total of 80 students per semester, which is far fewer than we see each semester in Alberta. In addition, the Ministry of Education in Singapore indicates:

Some schools also deploy two teachers in a class of 40 students—one teacher brings the class through the curriculum, while the other teacher assists specific students who may have difficulty understanding the materials being covered.

Wow! Singapore teachers actually have less marking to do than I do,  more time built into their schedules to collaborate with colleagues and plan good lessons, AND they get to team-teach in large classes? It’s a model I’d be willing and eager to explore. Are they hiring in Singapore?

Mr. Biased Columnist suggests that good teachers will do well no matter how many students we give them. I agree. Under our current conditions, however, they will likely burn out from all the marking and management problems that large classes can bring. We don’t want to burn out our good teachers, do we? One third of new teachers in Alberta burn out within 5 years. Let’s revisit Singapore.

The annual resignation rate for teachers has remained low at around 3% over the past five years. In our exit interviews and surveys, workload has not been cited as a major reason for leaving the Education Service. Nonetheless, we will continue to monitor the workload of teachers through internal employee feedback channels to ensure that workload is maintained within reasonable levels.

Singapore has bigger classes, fewer teaching hours, more collaborative time built into their day and retains 97% of their teachers. Does class size matter? Not nearly as much as teacher collaboration built into the school day.

On a completely different vein, I do need to point out that in my travels across Alberta, I already see classrooms that were built to hold 25 students jam-packed with 40 desks. I don’t know how we can physically put more bodies into those classrooms. Are we going to build a bunch of new schools with large lecture theatres?

Some Resources I Used

Better Teachers

Recent PISA results have people in Alberta in an uproar. A common reaction is to insist we need better teachers. I agree wholeheartedly. But…

I taught in 5 schools in both rural and urban Alberta, where I worked with hundreds of teachers. Since becoming a consultant, I have worked with dozens of schools and several hundreds of teachers across Alberta. I can assure you that the vast majority of our teachers are good. Some are exceptional. Yes, some struggle. I am confident that each of them, regardless of ability, would tell you that they can be better. All of them want to improve. So how do we help them?

We need to change our PD model. Workshops are fun, but they don’t change teacher practice. Coaching and collaboration do. Let’s steal from the Japanese. Let’s give teachers time to collaborate with colleagues. Build this time into the school day, so it’s not at 4:00 when everybody is exhausted. Have teachers plan lessons together, then observe the lesson in action with real kids in a real classroom. Have them get back together and discuss how the lesson worked. It’s called lesson study. It makes everybody better.

Connected and collaborative teachers have strong social capital, and one study concludes that “even low-ability teachers can perform as well as teachers of average ability if they have strong social capital.”

More and more of what I read and experience when I’m in classrooms tells me one thing. It doesn’t matter what school your child is in. It doesn’t matter what program your child is in. It doesn’t matter what the curriculum looks like. What matters is the adult that is in front of your child. Great teachers move children multiple grade levels in a year.

Great teachers come in all styles. Some lecture. Some use discovery learning. Some are constructivist. Some are disorganized. Some dress well. Some are sloppy. What they all have in common, though, is a deft ability to build positive relationships with students.

When students have a positive connection with their teacher, good things happen regardless of style, curriculum, subject area, program or any other variable you can name. In my experience, teachers that struggle seem to have a disconnect with their classes, despite the fact that they may be well planned and hard-working. I’m not sure this ability to connect can be taught. I think it’s directly related to people’s personalities. Beat me up in the comments over that one.

While we are at it, we might as well do one more thing pertaining to better teachers. Let’s make sure our best teachers are where they are needed most. Put them in the schools with high populations of our most at-risk students. Let’s give those kids a chance.

And to the people who suggest we fire a bunch of under-performing teachers, all I can say is this: You still need to convince me that there are hundreds of people out there desperate for teaching jobs who will be better than the ones you want to get rid of.

State of Education

I wasn’t going to to it. The last time that education in Alberta was all over the news, I wrote a ton on this blog. It stressed me out. It caused old friends to call me new names. I was never going to do it again.

The PISA results came out this week. Mr. PISA says Alberta is slipping. A clever columnist wrote about PISA envy. A less clever local columnist has taken up the doom and gloom cry. I’m not going to do him the honour of linking to his stuff. He’s too opinionated. He’s too curmudgeonly. What bugs me most this time, though, is that he’s partly (and only partly) right.

His four points seem to be.

  1. We need better teachers.
  2. Alberta’s class size initiative is a waste of money.
  3. We need more standardized testing, not less.
  4. Grade inflation is rampant.

I’m going to address those four things, one at a time, in my next four posts. Then I’m getting out. My challenge to my wordy self is to address each one in fewer than 500 words. That’s why this preamble of 200 words had to go in a separate post. The four posts aren’t written yet. I’m working on it. Stay tuned.

In my quest for a good Three Act Problem for elementary level students, I’ve come up with two more ideas. It’s actually the same idea presented in two different ways. It’s going to hit division at the grade 3 or 4 level, I hope.

Hay Bales – Act I

Cars – Act I

These videos are rough. The car one could be fantastic if a car lot would let one of us come by with a video camera and film them loading a carrier. The hay bales one would be great if we could get a farmer to let us film him loading a truck. In the past week, I have driven to Calgary and back, Stettler and back, and Red Deer and back. I’ve seen a ton of those bales in fields. I haven’t, unfortunately, come across any of them being loaded up or hauled along the highway.

In the spring, I was working on a series of posts about formative assessment in math class. I got sidetracked by starting a new blog, and kind of let it drop. This morning, however, I read this great post from Max Ray about questioning, and it brought me back to formative assessment.

One of Dylan Wiliam‘s 5 Key Strategies is “engineering effective discussions, questions, and activities that elicit evidence of learning.” From Dylan William’s book, Embedded Formative Assessment:

There are two good reasons to ask questions in classrooms: to cause thinking and to provide the teacher with information that assists instructional decision making.

Max is right. Good questions that cause thinking in math are tricky. Most of us lean towards asking recall and simple process questions. With practice, we can learn to throw out deeper questions as easily as we ask recall questions.

Max’s post contains a number (26 to be precise) of great questions that prompt discussion. My two favourites are:

  • What do you notice?
  • What do you wonder about?

Questions like the two above feel safe to students. They don’t have to worry about being wrong. They can think and respond without fear.

Sometimes, questions can be improved by turning your lesson around. I spoke to a teacher last year who was working on 3-D shapes with his class. He had the nets all copied and ready to have the students cut out, fold, and tape. It seemed more like a lesson on cutting, folding and taping, so he scrapped it. Instead, he brought out models of the 3-D shapes, and asked the students to create the nets that could be folded up to make the shapes. It ended up being an incredibly rich discussion.

One of my favourite conversation-extenders comes from Cathy Fosnot. When a student responds to a traditional question, extend the conversation by simply stating, “convince me.”

The more we can engage students in conversation with each other through effective questioning and planned activities, the more likely they are to come to their own understanding of the topics.

69 Children

Here’s another attempt at an Elementary-style 3 Act problem. No photos. Just a story. I got this one from my 8 year old daughter, who likes reading the Guinness Book of World Records. This story fascinates her. In class, I’d read right from the Guinness site for Act I.

Act I

The greatest officially recorded number of children born to one mother is 69, to the wife of Feodor Vassilyev (b. 1707-c. 1782), a peasant from Shuya, Russia.


Act II

Depending on what the students wonder about, you could go in some different directions here. My daughter wonders about how many of this woman’s children didn’t have a twin. In that case, the information to provide is that the 69 births contained 16 pairs of twins, 7 sets of triplets, and 4 sets of quadruplets.


The payoff here is that when students do the math above, they will discover that there was not one single case where only one child was born out of all 27 of the pregnancies. That fact makes the whole story seem suspect.


  • How would you know if the total number of children is even or odd, based on the information about twins, triplets and quadruplets?
  • Others?

I may have missed the mark here. It is entirely possible that pregnancy is a topic to be avoided in Elementary school. So far, my daughter has played around on the math on this one for a day or two now without asking me any questions that I don’t want to answer.


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