ORAL QUESTION PERIOD
Inspiring Education Public Consultation
Kyle Fawcett (PC—Calgary-North Hill): “Over the last couple of weeks the Minister of Education has rolled out his plan for Inspiring Education: A Dialogue with Albertans. It was just a couple of weeks ago that the minister had the steering committee panel here and introduced them to the Legislature, and it was quite the impressive compilation of distinguished Albertans. I was wondering if the minister could share his methodology in selecting the members of that panel.”
Minister of Education Dave Hancock: “I think it’s important, when you put together a steering committee of this nature for this type of project, that you not go to representatives of organizations who bring, by the very nature of that term, representation but that you bring Albertans together who bring perspectives. So we looked across the province to get a dynamic of people coming from across the province from a geographic perspective and from a variety of areas within the province so that they could bring their expertise, their knowledge, and their passion to the task.”
Mr Fawcett: “I appreciate that inspiring answer from the Minister of Education. However, I’m deeply concerned that this panel has left out two very obvious participant groups as part of this discussion, one being members of our current youth here in Alberta, who are the ones being educated and the ones that are relying on this education. Can the minister comment on why that specific group was left off this panel?”
Mr Hancock: “Mr. Speaker, we have a parallel process happening called Speak Out Alberta. We had sessions in schools right across the province back in the October-November time frame and again in the February-March time frame. That will culminate in a conference in early May here in Edmonton. We’ll be setting up, as I was mandated by the Premier to do, an advisory council for youth that will have an ongoing participation in discussion with the ministry and with the minister directly on issues pertaining to youth in the process. All of that input will go into the Inspiring Education process as well.”
Mr Fawcett: “I appreciate that answer as well, as the chair of the Youth Secretariat for the province. However, there is an additional group that I believe has been left out of this advisory panel, and that is business and industry, who very much rely on our education system to provide people with the skills and education that they require to be competitive on a global level. Can the minister explain how this issue is going to be addressed through this process?”
Mr Hancock: “I wouldn’t agree that business has been left out. I think one of the co-chairs, our own colleague from Athabasca-Redwater, brings a background and perspective in small business from his previous life. We also have Mark Anielski, who is a professor at the University of Alberta in business and advises businesses across North America, actually, and provides strategic counsel to business. John Masters is president and CEO of Calgary Technologies Inc., which helps entrepreneurs grow small- and medium-sized businesses. However, I have at the request of the co-chairs begun to look to see whether we might add additional business perspective to the council.”
Public Education Exemptions
Harry Chase (LIB—Calgary-Varsity): “Over the weekend the Minister of Culture and Community Spirit spoke publicly about proposed amendments to the human rights act. The amendments would give parents the right to dictate what is taught in public schools. The minister speaks of tolerance, but this amendment seems like an appalling step backwards. To the Minister of Education: does the minister support amending the human rights act to make it a fundamental human right for parents to exempt their children from science education and other teachings that may be contrary to their beliefs?”
Minister of Education Dave Hancock: “The Minister of Education is under the fundamental belief that we’re all born with a full basket of rights and that everything the government does in terms of enacting laws in the interests of the community diminishes those rights, hopefully for justifiable purposes. What I’d say to the hon. member is that we have rules in place in this province, both in the School Act with respect to religion and with mandated policy with respect to education with respect to sexuality, that a parent can choose to have their child exempted from such education if they don’t believe it’s in the best interest of their child from their personal value system.”
Mr Chase: “The minister anticipated my next question. As a teacher for 34 years I know that parents already have the right to excuse their child from classes that are contrary to their beliefs, such as sexual education. Given that there is no need, therefore, for such legislation, will the minister commit to not supporting any amendment that would enshrine a parent’s right to ignore curriculum?”
Mr Hancock: “Well, Mr. Speaker, I’m not going to commit to anything of the sort. If the government brings forward legislation and I’m a member of the government and House Leader, I think it’s my duty to bring forward legislation to support what the government does. What I have to say in terms of the formation of that legislation would be counsel that I would hold to myself.”
Mr Chase: “The last time I checked my calendar, Mr. Minister, this was 2009 Alberta, not 1929 Tennessee.
“Given that parents already have the right to home-school their children or to place their children in private schools, what is the point of a public curriculum that is developed to provide a full breadth of education if this government makes key sections of it optional? Create your own curriculum?”
Mr Hancock: “Mr. Speaker, what’s not optional in this province is that parents have the right to raise their children. They not only have a right; they have a duty and an obligation to those children to bring to those children moral values. It’s not in the government’s hands to dictate moral values to parents. What the government does is make sure that there’s a good, strong public education system with a good, strong curriculum, and then parents can have the choice on certain areas, certain areas only, relative to religion and sexuality and whether their children should participate in those specific sections of the curriculum or not.”
PUBLIC BILLS AND ORDERS OTHER THAN GOVERNMENT BILLS AND ORDERS
Bill 203—Local Authorities Election (Finance and Contribution Disclosure) Amendment Act, 2009
Bill 203, Local Authorities Election (Finance and Contribution Disclosure) Amendment Act, 2009, was debated at second reading. Sponsored by Jeff Johnson (PC—Athabasca–Redwater), the bill prohibits school boards and trade unions from making campaign contributions to municipal candidates.
Jeff Johnson (PC—Athabasca–Redwater): “]T]he voter will be protected in several ways, including allowing them to be informed . . . by prohibiting donor organizations in potential conflict or those owned or financially supported by taxpayers from using any part of their resources to contribute to political campaigns. . . .
“Mr. Speaker, it is not the intent of Bill 203 to impose retroactivity of these provisions of . . . prohibited corporations on existing campaign funds. I think we all realize that those existing campaign funds have been built up in good faith and over many years and that it would be unfair and unpractical to try and impose these provisions on those existing funds. Therefore, Bill 203 has a one-time transition provision that will allow candidates or potential candidates to declare and transition their existing campaign funds. Once declared and put into trust, those existing funds would be eligible for future campaigns without full compliance to the provisions of this bill.”
Minister of Municipal Affairs Ray Danyluk: “[A]s this bill moves forward, there’s one point that I would like to see further discussion on, and that is the issue of school board trustees. The Local Authorities Election Act applies to both municipal councillors and school board trustees. I would be interested in hearing from this member if this was something he considered when drafting the bill.”
Harry Chase (LIB—Calgary-Varsity): “I would like to see the type of control for elections throughout the province have a uniform set of rules, and this is what Bill 203 attempts to accomplish, to put requirements on municipal elected officials, whether they be school board trustees or councillors at the local level, aldermen, alderwomen, and so on. I would like to see the same types of rules that are being suggested in Bill 203 also be required of leadership races. . . .
“The one area that I have a degree of difficulty with has to do with disenfranchising certain organizations, in particular members of a union. It seems to single out individuals who belong to a particular union from contributing to a candidate whom they believe will bring up issues such as a living wage. Reducing that degree of influence causes me a degree of concern.
“I also would like to point out that when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was in power, he dramatically reduced the contributions that either individuals, unions, or corporations could provide. He basically set the federal bar in terms of disclosure, transparency, and accountability, and that is not a partisan circumstance. It’s trying for transparency and accountability and taking away undue influence based on the size of your wallet.
“Bringing accountability to local officials such as Bill 203 proposes I think brings them into line with already established provincial standards, and therefore I am very supportive of Bill 203.”
Jonathan Denis (PC—Calgary-Egmont): “[T]he fourth main component of Bill 203 is prohibiting certain types of entities from contributing towards candidates. The bill seeks to propose those entities who receive municipal funding in nonprofit organizations. This goes a step further than other jurisdictions in Canada such as Ontario, B.C., or Manitoba, who only have restrictions disallowing contributions from anonymous contributors. As well, Quebec only mandates eligible voters who are able to contribute in municipal elections.
“However, our provincial elections already have strong legislation. No prohibited corporation or person normally resident outside Alberta or trade union or employee or organization other than as defined in the act can make any contributions to a party, association, or candidate. This proposed change is a proactive step, setting reasonable and province-wide standards for all of Alberta’s communities. Mr. Speaker, this bill is an attempt to bring our municipalities up to speed with our provincial and federal finance laws and follows several other jurisdictions, as I have mentioned.”
Rachel Notley (NDP—Edmonton-Strathcona): “There are a couple of elements within this bill that I have some concerns with, having said that, generally speaking, it’s good and the objectives it seeks to achieve are also good. Just a couple of points. You know, it would be nice to see or hear whether there was room for those to be amended.
“The first point relates to the issue of how trade unions versus corporations are being treated under this legislation. Now, I appreciate that the language defining trade unions in this piece of legislation is very similar to the language used in the provincial act. The difference, of course, is that under the provincial act there is a lot more money that can be given. There’s a much, much higher threshold before bodies which are donating money to political parties or to political candidates run up against the prohibitions.
“This act attempts to significantly limit the financial contributions that can be made to candidates. I think that that’s a good thing. But the difficulty is that it treats trade unions and corporations differently in that all sort of subsidiary parts of a trade union are for the purposes of this legislation being told that they have to be treated as one, yet the same thing does not happen with respect to subsidiary corporate entities.
“My view of how it ought to work is that the trade unions ought to be defined in the same way they are defined under the Labour Relations Code. If there is a local that is certified at a certain employer through which there is a certain collective agreement, where that particular group of workers have come together collectively to negotiate a particular set of circumstances, and then that particular local as a group has decided that they want to make a donation to a particular candidate or campaign or party or whichever, then so be it. That’s what they are. But to suggest that that local is part of the same local with a completely different employer in a completely different part of the province, where they’ve never talked to those members, they’ve never discussed the merits of that particular candidate, they can’t co-ordinate among themselves whether it’s more important to give $5,000 to candidate A in Calgary versus candidate B in Edmonton, that is, I think, an onerous position to put these locals into.
“That’s fine if we are doing it for everybody, but the same rules don’t apply to corporate subsidiaries. They can make donations all over the place, depending on how they are organized and depending on how their subsidiaries are organized. To me, that’s not a level playing field because what you’re doing is putting in place a substantial rule which, I think, has merit – i.e., keeping the limit to $5,000 over the course of the whole three years – but then you’re applying it differently to two different potential donors. Ironically, one of those groups of potential donors happens to be more likely to donate to the governing caucus than the other group of potential donors, which is more likely to not donate to the governing caucus. That is on the face of it an inequality and inequity which, I think, needs to be corrected. I’m perfectly happy for it to be corrected by closing the loopholes for corporate donations so that everybody truly is limited to the $5,000. But it’s got to be one or the other. So that’s $5,000.
“Again, it’s interesting. You compare it to the provincial legislation. As an MLA for the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona I represent about a third of the number of people as the two councillors that represent my ward. It’s interesting that my limitation that just as an individual MLA I can receive, I believe, is about $30,000 to $40,000 – I don’t know the exact amount, but it’s about that much – in total between the two elections, yet a candidate for alderperson could only receive a maximum of $5,000 in that same period of time. That is, again, an interesting irony, that we’ve got those two different sets of rules in place.”
MOTIONS OTHER THAN GOVERNMENT MOTIONS
Motion 503 was agreed to by a vote of 29 to 18. Sponsored by Genia Leskiw (PC—Bonnyville–Cold Lake), the motion urges the government “to eliminate provincial achievement tests for grade three students and consider alternative assessments for learning.”
Genia Leskiw (PC—Bonnyville–Cold Lake): “It is a great honour and a privilege to stand today and open debate on Motion 503, urging the Alberta government to eliminate the provincial achievement test for grade 3 students and consider an alternative assessment for learning.
“Mr. Speaker, for me kids always come first. That is why I have dedicated many years of my life to Alberta’s classrooms, providing our children with the foundation necessary to help them succeed and build Alberta’s future. Now as an elected representative it is my responsibility to work with my constituents and assess measures that will improve Alberta’s world-class education system. That is why I have introduced this discussion on whether provincial achievement tests, PATs, for grade 3 students are the best mechanisms for learning assessment. Part of the effectiveness of our world-class education system is based on the willingness to continuously improve to better meet the needs of our children, and I believe that reviewing and enhancing our method of assessment would further strengthen our education system.
“Mr. Speaker, I have observed how the grade 3 PATs have placed a burden on grade 3 students, teachers, and parents. For teachers a great deal of time is spent preparing each of their students to write the achievement exams. This is time that could be spent on teaching the curriculum rather than teaching for a test. The achievement test interferes with the responsibility of teachers to determine curriculum emphasis, design learning activities, and develop and administer their own evaluation procedures.
“Teachers are ultimately responsible for evaluating and reporting students’ progress. Further to this, the PAT does not provide an individual assessment of students’ academic achievements or progress. Rather, it only tests information that can be assessed through pencil-and-paper examination. Factors such as that a child is well nourished or had a good night’s rest can strongly influence test performance. Teaching methods need to be tailored directly to the students’ needs, particularly in the earlier grades, where students from all walks of life have different challenges and may require modified teaching methods to advance their academic achievements. Mr. Speaker, a one-size-fits-all teaching method may not educate students in a way that corresponds to their individual needs.
“Timing is another drawback of this exam. Provincial achievement tests are currently written near the end of the school year, but the results are not handed back until the fall, after most students in the grade have moved on to the next grade. This does not provide teachers the ability to offer additional support to individual students, nor does it give students the ability to improve. It’s just a snapshot of how a particular student and/or school performed on a certain day.
“I believe along with many other teachers across this great province that the funding spent on administrating these tests could be better spent on curriculum enhancement and on developing more effective methods of evaluation. In 2001 the Alberta Teachers’ Association surveyed teachers about the provincial achievement testing program and found that only 6 per cent of teachers believe that grade 3 achievement testing should continue as it is. Alternatively, 33 per cent of teachers wanted the tests replaced with diagnostic tests, and 44 per cent of teachers believed that the tests should be abandoned altogether.
“Accountability is very important within the education system and helps to ensure that the curriculum standards are met. However, the PATs for grade 3 may not be an effective method of accountability. Statistically, similar tests could be collected through sampling procedures which would be less expensive and disruptive.
“In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, I want to emphasize that in my experience as a teacher we are not doing our students a favour by the continuation of this exam but, rather, a disservice to both our students and teachers. I also want to emphasize that we have one of the best education systems in the world, and this is clearly demonstrated by both my teaching colleagues and our students. In this province we know that our students have the ability to compete with any students from anywhere in the world. Education is the foundation of our province’s success. I look forward to exploring the possibilities of how we can continue to improve our exceptional education system, in doing so enabling us all to act and realize the unmatched potential that exists in Alberta.
“Mr. Speaker, once a teacher, always a teacher. Students have always come first for me, and I will always promote what is best for our kids. I’m encouraging both Albertans and this Assembly to consider alternative methods for assessing our students in grade 3, and I ask that you stand in support of Motion 503.”
Len Mitzel (PC—Cypress–Medicine Hat): “I’m pleased to rise today in this Assembly to speak in favour of Motion 503, the elimination of grade 3 provincial achievement tests. I’d like to express my appreciation to the hon. Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake for bringing forward this very important motion.
“Mr. Speaker, we need to acknowledge the positive direction of Motion 503 and what it means to our youth. Since the introduction of grade 3 standardized provincial achievement tests in 1992 our society has changed a great deal, and in the past 17 years school curriculum has been amended to reflect not only these changes but the standards and expectations placed on our students.
“Currently achievement tests are designed to determine if students are learning the information that they will need to succeed in the future. However, at the age of 7 or 8 years these young people are all learning at their own pace, and it’s imperative that our children have the ability to experience their own individual strengths and weaknesses and grow into well-rounded citizens. I believe that it’s very important that students in grade 3 are assessed. However, it needs to be on an individual basis.
“Currently teachers are working closely with interested parents regarding the personal assessment of their students. For example, on a daily basis there are quizzes, essays, projects, and the observation of students by teachers that can help to judge the personal progress of students. Assessments of a child’s progress cannot be focused on their test-taking abilities. This is true particularly in the third grade, where the test-taking experience has not yet been fully developed. Teachers in schools have recognized the need to have students learn at their own pace. If this is what they want, then why would we try to judge this on a standardized scale?
“Over the past few weeks, Mr. Speaker, I’ve had the opportunity to visit 15 schools in my constituency as part of their grade 6 curriculum to learn about government. During this time I took the opportunity to discuss the issue proposed by Motion 503 with teachers directly, and most have said the same thing: testing of students is important to ensure there is progress and that schools offer a standardized level of instruction; however, there needs to be an alternative test.
“Instead, I’d like to see students being tested at the beginning of the year and again at the end to judge their progress. This diagnostic type of test is very different from the standardized tests currently in place. Diagnostic testing is generally accepted to be an in-depth evaluation of a relatively narrow scope of analysis aimed to identify specific conditions or problems. In this way diagnostic testing can be the best answer for assessing students learning at different paces. In my opinion, this is the best type of testing for our students. It not only evaluates their abilities, but I believe that we can take the results from these tests to ensure that Alberta teaching standards are being upheld. With this common-sense approach I believe the emphasis will be then on the students versus on the test. After all, it should be the student that is evaluated, not the school.
“It is for these reasons that I support Motion 503.”
Harry Chase (LIB—Calgary-Varsity): “I am extremely pleased that the Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake introduced Motion 503. I’m not only pleased, but I’m relieved and I’m celebratory that the Member for Cypress-Medicine Hat stood up and so eloquently supported this motion. I really appreciate the fact that even though he doesn’t have a teaching experiential background, he does his homework. He, as he pointed out, visited 15 schools, and he talked to stakeholders. I’m sure that in his dealings with children he’s got a sense of what their best interests are.
“Now, it’s extremely important that this motion doesn’t say: let’s toss tests and forget about testing. What it says is: let’s consider alternative assessments for learning. The hon. Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake gave examples of a variety of instruments that have considerably greater validity than a student’s ability to fill in a very narrow space with an HB pencil, because that is one of the chief skills that is required on a multiple-guess test.
“Well, beginning at the grade 3 level is a very interesting place to start because that test is particularly torturous on young individuals, but where it is most repulsive is at the grade 12 level for the various reasons the Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake pointed out. Why, on the basis of a two-hour multiple guess, is this given the same evaluation credibility as an entire year’s work of very diverse assignments? What this standardized achievement test does very effectively is test a student’s family’s wealth. It also tests reasonably effectively the students based on their advantage and the length of time they’ve had in an economic well-being circumstance with English as their first language. It also, because of its heavy language basis, will test wealth and language.
“What it fails to test are the creative areas. What it assumes – and maybe that assumption can be applied to math – for language arts, social studies, and science is that there is a single right answer, that by picking B, then A, C, and D have no value. Now, having taught elementary math, I gave students more marks for how they got to the right answer than for the right answer itself. That’s, unfortunately, the thing that standardized achievement tests do not do. They test a very basic level of understanding, the assumption that there’s only one way that it can be done.
“What happens is that students who are intellectually diverse will overthink a particular answer, believing that what they have come up with as their first thought can’t possibly be right. The way you’re supposed to pick an answer on these multiple-guess tests is that your first impression is usually your best one. They will overthink it and as a result fail because they work so hard at coming up with: ‘How could this possibly be the answer? I must be wrong. I must look for other possibilities.’ When you’ve got little introductions of about 12 words leading up to the question from which you’re supposed to choose the A, B, C, or D, then it doesn’t test their ability. What it does test is a person’s ability to read the length of a stem. Any of us who have taken statistics or sampling at some point in university know how to do well on these particular tests, and it’s of large concern that such value is given to these tests.
“What is even more disconcerting is the way in which these tests are administered. It was pointed out by both the Member for Cypress-Medicine Hat and the Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake, who is introducing Motion 503, that these are end of the year tests. They are tested when a child is leaving grade 3, leaving division 1, going into division 2. They occur at the end of grade 6, when a child has not only left the division but in most cases has left the school. How is that end result going to help them when they transfer into junior high school? It’s again tested at the grade 9 level, where up to a quarter to a fifth of a student’s mark is based on this two-hour one-shot wonder, and then of course by the time it hits grade 12, they’re gone. What good is this test that they have no longer any opportunity to improve upon unless, of course, they fail it, in which case they’ll be doing summer school and trying again to be a better guesser in the exam they write over the summer?
“If the government is truly concerned about the level of learning, then they’ve got to give some credit to the teachers, who have spent a minimum of four years getting their education or in the case of a master’s of education have spent six years and in their practicums have gone through a whole variety and coursework on different methods of assessment, including students’ own self-assessment, which is extremely important that students learn to evaluate themselves on a base of understood criteria.
“I am hoping that government members are going to be supportive of this motion as a first step. It’s not saying that evaluation isn’t important, but it’s saying: let’s put the emphasis, as the hon. Member for Cypress-Medicine Hat put it, on the learning end of things as opposed to the testing end. You know, the old axiom of the tail wagging the dog is what standardized achievement tests are all about. Hopefully the motion passes.
“The next step is that the results are used internally, that they’re not used as a hammer externally to beat down children. That is what standardized achievement tests do in schools with multi-ethnic populations. That is what happens in schools where the poverty levels run high. That is why First Nations schools are exempted. They are a definable group.
“If the results are important, then let’s work within the schools to improve those results, find the schools that fit in the bottom 200 of the testing results and provide the funding and the support, the reduced class size, the one-on-one type of teaching that will bring them up to the level that can be achieved primarily at the private school, where they have the option to select what children are allowed to enrol. They have the funding to provide reduced class sizes.
“Motion 503 is just the beginning, and I hope the story will continue.”
Heather Forsyth (PC—Calgary-Fish Creek): “It’s a pleasure to rise and join the debate on Motion 503. Since the last election I’ve had the pleasure of sitting beside the hon. Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake in this Assembly. This means that we are often able to share ideas on debates that are taking place. It doesn’t, however, mean that we always agree. We sometimes find ourselves supporting the same goal but differing on how to get there, or we just don’t agree, period, but we respect each other’s opinion.
“Mr. Speaker, I do agree with my colleague on Motion 503, and I want to thank her for representing the interests of eight- and nineyear- olds. As a former teacher she brings a great deal of perspective and expertise to this issue, and I greatly respect her opinion.
“Recently, Mr. Speaker, I got a letter from a constituent of mine who is also a teacher. The writer argues that the tests place a lot of stress on an eight- or nine-year-old child. She has seen children lose sleep worrying about their performance and being unable to perform to the best of their abilities. At such a young age even good students can be derailed by their anxiety surrounding these tests. I hear stories from my constituents about their own children. One constituent told me that her child said: ‘When my teacher told me to take out my pencil, I started to sweat. I got cramps in my tummy, and I thought I was going to throw up.’ I have to ask myself: what’s the point of this test? Is it going to make our children smarter? When I’m old, is my doctor going to be better qualified to care for me because they took an achievement test when they were eight or nine years old?
“I’m all for accountability in our education system, Mr. Speaker, but I think that our resources might be better spent developing new diagnostic tools. An achievement test is a snapshot of how that student is doing on a given day. It may have some value, but is it worth the expense both financially and in terms of stress on our students? Maybe we should do away with the expense of snapshot and continue working to create a scrapbook, one that takes into account a wide variety of factors and allows students to develop over a period of time, an approach that recognizes that children have different learning styles and they have different skills. Some children have skills that measure up well on an achievement test, and others have different skills. This type of tool would really allow us to evaluate how our education system is doing and establish a way to improve it.
“In closing, Mr. Speaker, I want to thank the Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake for bringing this motion forward and lending her considerable expertise to this Assembly. I also want to urge my colleagues to support Motion 503.”
Guy Boutilier (PC—Fort McMurray–Wood Buffalo): “I will be brief based on some of the very excellent comments that have been made by members from all sides of the House this afternoon.
“I want to compliment the Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake, and I applaud her. I say that also as a former teacher. I want to say that at the end of the day the outcome that we are looking for is, quite simply, for students to reach their full potential. I’m proud to say that I have an almost two-year-old, and some day when he is eight or nine years old and in grade 3, I’m looking forward to being a teacher’s greatest advocate and not a teacher’s worst nightmare.
“I’m very pleased to say that I have spoken to many grade 3 teachers in my community of Fort McMurray, where we have 23 schools. I value their opinion. At the end of the day Motion 503 says, ‘Be it resolved that the Legislative Assembly urge the government to eliminate provincial achievement tests for grade 3 students and consider alternative assessments for learning.’ I believe in diagnostic teaching, which has been talked about, as well as: how do we spend our energy? I believe we can spend our energy in a more efficient manner for our teachers and for parents and for students in helping them reach their full potential.
“I want to say that alternative assessment is really a dialogue with teachers, with others that are involved in this, shall I say, important venture. This is about a dialogue. Last week you heard the Prime Minister and the President of the United States talk about a dialogue on clean energy. I think it is healthy in enhancing our system by not saying that we just simply eliminate, but we’re looking at enhancing an already excellent system in our province.
“With that and from what I have heard from grade 3 teachers, I fully support Motion 503. In my former life as a teacher and without any fear of contradiction I encourage all members from all sides of the House to support this important motion.”
Rachel Notley (NDP—Edmonton-Strathcona): “I, too, will try to be briefer than usual in light of the number of people that want to speak.
“I want to of course start by commending the Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake for her use of her opportunity to bring a motion before the Legislature with respect to one that has generated so much interest. I can definitely say that we will be voting in favour of her motion because I think it is a very wise initiative and one that demonstrates a great deal of common sense. In my own constituency, I can report to my colleagues, I have received a phenomenal amount of feedback from people even with just the recent amount of press attention that this issue has gotten. The response has been very solidly on one side of the issue, basically, also supporting this initiative that’s being brought forward by the Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake.
“There are a number of really good, important points that have already been made by many speakers. I can say, you know, that I have a son who took the grade 3 test last year, and I have a daughter who will take it next year. One of the things that is most important to me is that I worry about the degree of stress that this process can in some cases impose upon kids and also upon the school. I also worry about the impact that this test can have on the quality of education that’s actually provided in the classroom. I do know that time is taken out from other educational activities in order to prepare the students for this test. I think that we ultimately experience a loss in terms of the overall education that goes on in the class because of the need for the children to be prepared properly for these tests. Also, I have several different schools that provide immersion in my riding, in my area, and of course the children in those programs have to take the test twice, so there’s additional stress and anxiety there.
“I think what’s really important is that children in the classroom do get assessed and that their progress is clearly identified. I do want to make that very clear. I think that assessing is very, very important. I think the incredibly patient teachers at my own school would on a good day call me a high-needs parent when it comes to wanting to know how well my kids are doing. I have nothing against proper assessment, but I do think that that assessment should be done in a way that allows for the natural variance from day to day that children will experience and also allows for it to be used in a functional way so that if there is assessment done and then there are deficits identified, the teachers have the ability to respond in a reasonably timely fashion to change what’s happening. I think, particularly when kids are at this age, you know, seven, eight, nine years old, that so much changes between the time they write the test and the time they get the results back that the opportunity has long since been lost for teachers to do what they do best, which is to help our kids learn as much and as well as they possibly can when they’re in school.
“As I said, there have been a number of very, very good points already made in favour of this motion, so I won’t go on any longer. I do urge my colleagues here to join our caucus in voting in favour of the motion.”
Doug Elniski (PC—Edmonton-Calder): “It’s my pleasure to rise today to speak in favour of Motion 503, the elimination of grade 3 provincial achievement tests, or PATs. Motion 503 urges the government to consider alternative assessments for learning for Alberta’s grade 3 students.
“As the father of three daughters I know the dedication, hard work, and enthusiasm that students in Alberta put into their education. I was always there to help each one of them finish their homework, complete a project, or study for a big test, and I saw the anxiety that they went through each time they had to prepare for a major test like a PAT, not that a little anxiety is always a bad thing, Mr. Speaker. Overall, the PAT is used to determine if the students are learning what they are expected to learn. There’s a lot of pressure put on a student as a result of the exams. Concerns with disappointing results and even failure can lead a student to doing not as well as they could or can lead a student to doing much better.
“Mr. Speaker, I think that testing in schools is extremely important. I absolutely believe that you cannot manage what you cannot measure. However, I am not convinced that PATs in grade 3 are the best way to measure eight- and nine-year-olds. Perhaps it would be beneficial for all parties – students, teachers, and parents – to take another look at the standardized testing in Alberta. I wholly support that we need to catch them by this age so that they don’t fall behind. This motion is providing an opportunity for alternative methods of evaluation to be considered, methods that focus more on the individual needs of the student, methods that will inevitably contribute more to a student’s long-term academic success.
“Our province has always been a major advocate of education. It is important for us to develop a testing mechanism that best meets the needs of Alberta’s students and one that will continue to meet those needs. In an era where it is so important for our children to continually further their education, it becomes essential for us to start with the basics and make sure that our children learn what they need to. Taking another look at the grade 3 PATs in this province could help us understand and help us improve our already worldclass education system.
“Mr. Speaker, our children are so vital to the success and vitality of this province that we must do everything we can to ensure that they learn and grow into Alberta’s future leaders.”
Minister of Education Dave Hancock: “ I am pleased to rise and speak to the motion brought forward by the hon. Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake. I want to start by thanking the hon. member for raising what I believe to be an exceedingly important issue, not just the issue of the provincial achievement tests at grade 3 but the issue of education and its importance to our students and to our community as a whole.
“As you’ll know, Mr. Speaker, and all members of the House will know, we’re engaged in a very strong discussion about education over the course of the next year, talking about where we need to be as we educate our students in this province so that they can be ready for a global economy and a global community and so that they can be ready to participate locally as citizens in their local community and in their local economies. As we talk about the 21st century learner, we talk about the knowledge, skills, and attributes that our learner needs to have to be successful.
“We also need to determine how we know when we’ve achieved those essential elements of learning. I would start by agreeing and by putting forward the concept that teachers are in the best position to assess the learning and the progress of the students in their classrooms. Teachers are professionals. They’re trained as teachers, and they are in the classroom with the students on a day-to-day basis, both promoting learning of concepts and assessing how that learning is going. Assessment for learning happens, I would submit, Mr. Speaker, on a daily basis in the classroom. It has to. Teachers have to know whether the concepts that they’re putting forward and the methodology that they’re using to instruct the students in their classrooms, who come from diverse backgrounds and who come with diverse abilities – whether they’re grasping the concepts, whether they’re learning, and whether they’re moving forward.
“There should be no argument at all, in my view, about whether assessment for learning is important – absolutely it is – and whether assessment for learning is best done in the hands of teachers, who are the professionals. Absolutely, it must be.
“There are also, though, two other assessment processes: assessment as learning and assessment of learning. I’ll not speak about assessment as learning at the moment because that might just confuse the issue, and I have a short period of time, and you have a long list. But assessment of learning is also important. In my view, it’s not discrete from or distinct from assessment for learning. All assessment has to be used for learning in some manner or form. But assessment of learning so that we can report to the community that our school system is working, that the investment that we’re making in our children is a valuable investment, and that we are moving forward as part of the larger community is very important.
“A lot of the discussion around provincial achievement tests has been around the concept of high-stakes testing. I want to just speak for a moment about that because I think it’s very important that we not allow provincial achievement tests to become high-stakes testing. They’re not a measure of the teachers. The PAT 3s, PAT 6s, PAT 9s are not a way of determining whether our teachers are doing a good job.
“All you need to do is be in any classroom in any community in our province to know that each classroom is made up of a different group of students, that bring different talents and abilities, different abilities and disabilities, different backgrounds and perspectives, even different languages to the classroom. They bring their social problems both from home and from their community to the classroom. So it cannot be used as a measure of teachers, nor can it be used as a measure to rank schools, as some purport to try and do. That’s not the purpose, and that’s not a useful result for provincial achievement tests.
“However, there is a value to achievement tests in terms of understanding across the spectrum of our learning system how well we are doing and to be able to report back to school jurisdictions for their use within their schools on trends within the teaching and learning that’s happening and in other ways in which the curricular leaders in the schools, the principals and other curricular leaders, can work within their school community to determine if there are things that need to be changed within the system, if there are ways that we can do things better.
“There’s a role and function for provincial achievement tests. There’s an appropriate way to use the results of those provincial achievement tests. I would argue that there are even ways to use them effectively for student learning. We have some 13 years of experience with PAT 3 tests, and one of the things which I’ve learned from looking at the results is that they’re entirely predictive of outcomes for those students in later years. Mr. Speaker, what that tells me is that the tests are reliable, but it also tells me that we’re not using them appropriately because if they are predictive of the result, we’re not changing the result as a result of the tests.
“That’s sort of a convoluted way of saying it, but I would say this: should we be looking for improvement in our assessment processes? Absolutely. I’ve committed to work with the ATA and others in the education community to find better ways to do assessment. There’s a new project being headed up by Dr. Barry McGaw of the University of Melbourne to look at how we assess 21st century skills to be able to assess them in an appropriate way. I think we should be engaged in that project because we need to move our assessment practices and we need to make sure that our assessment practices are useful practices for the student, for the school, for the system, and to be able to report back to our public.
“Mr. Speaker, while I understand the sentiment behind the motion that the Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake has brought forward and I understand the concerns that are being raised about people teaching to the test and about the stress of the grade 3 students, I think those are issues that can be overcome. I do think we need to make sure that we have ways of recognizing the testing standards and assessment standards and outcomes across the spectrum of our system. We have to appreciate that our system is held up as being one of the best in the world because of its strong curriculum, because of its strong teaching standards, because of its strong teachers, and because of our accountability pillar in our assessment processes.
“Before we change what we’re doing, we ought to know what we’re going to. That would be my comment to the hon. member. Should we look at the PAT 3 tests and, presumably, in the future the PAT 6 and PAT 9? Perhaps we should. But let’s know and understand what assessment we need to make sure that we’re effective not only for the students, which is most important, but for the system, know that we’re doing the right thing and investing in our system across the province so that our students can be ready for the 21st century – we’re into the 21st century now, so I’d better say for the latter half of the 21st century – so that they can participate in a knowledge economy, a global economy, and be good both global and local citizens.”
Dave Quest (PC—Strathcona): “I appreciate the opportunity to rise and add to the debate on Motion 503, which urges the government ‘to eliminate provincial achievement tests for grade 3 students and consider alternative assessments for learning.’
“Mr. Speaker, we’re very fortunate to live in this province. We have an exceptional education system, that allows our children to succeed. I have a child that’s in that system, and he and his classmates are all very successful. In addition, we’ve got exceptional teachers, and they should all be commended for the exemplary role they play and how they perform in building Alberta’s future by educating our youth.
“However, it’s necessary to review our system to ensure that it continues to reflect the needs of our students, our teachers, and all Albertans. This provincial testing program, as mentioned earlier, was introduced in 1992. The first objective is to determine if students are learning what they are expected to learn at a particular grade level. Fair enough. The second is to provide Albertans with a report as to how well students have achieved provincial standards at these specific points of schooling, and the third is to assist schools, authorities, and the province in monitoring and improving student learning. These objectives are very important; however, there have been some concerns about the effectiveness of this testing model. The hon. Minister of Education has already explained the difference between assessments of learning and assessments for learning, so I won’t go into that.
“In discussions with teachers in my own constituency they’ve admitted that, often, in grades where provincial achievement tests are administered, they end up teaching to the test. By focusing primarily on teaching to the test, valuable time is spent just preparing students for the test rather than simply covering the curriculum. Further, teachers are less able to tailor their teaching methods to meet the needs of individual students. Mr. Speaker, I believe we must ask ourselves if the current model of testing is the most beneficial way to determine if students are learning what they’re expected to learn. I also feel it’s important to consistently revise our assessment program and put greater emphasis on alternative methods for learning testing, such as diagnostic testing, which enables teaching methods to be tailored directly to those students’ needs, which is vital for their long-term academic success.
“It’s important that we continually examine our education system to make sure that it’s operating effectively for our children and all Albertans. That, Mr. Speaker, is why I stand before this House wholeheartedly in support of Motion 503.”
Kent Hehr (LIB—Calgary-Buffalo): “It’s an honour and a privilege to speak in favour of Motion 503, eliminating provincial assessment testing for grade 3. It’s also an honour for me to speak today because my grade 9 teacher and, actually, the head of the Alberta Teachers’ Association, Frank Bruseker, is here this afternoon to witness that a recalcitrant and lackadaisical student in his grade 9 class has been able to participate in a debate of this stature in Alberta at this time. So I thank Mr. Bruseker for his work with me back then and his current work on behalf of the Alberta people.
“If we get into the merits of the debate, my father served as a teacher in the Calgary public system for 25 years. My mother served in the Calgary public teaching association for another 30 years. So my experience with provincial exam testing is mostly anecdotal. When it came to things that came up in the classroom, I would tend to believe things my mother said a little more than my father not because my father wasn’t a great teacher – he probably was – but my mother was one of those hard-working schoolteachers who paid attention to students, who really did everything by the book and looked at what worked best with students. I think my dad sort of cut corners the odd time. But I’m telling tales out of school and probably shouldn’t be doing that.
“I’d get back home after a day of school, whenever it was, or from university, and I’d see my mom the odd time – you know, rarely did I see her like this; it was usually toward the end of the year – and she’d come home; she was all stressed out and was all upset. I’d say, ‘Mom, what’s the matter?’ and she said, ‘We had those exams again.’ What ‘those exams’ was referring to were the exams that her students would have to take in grade 3. My mother was an educator, a principal primarily in the K through 6 grades for the majority of her last 15 years of teaching.
“I’d explore with her. I’d say, ‘Well, what’s so bad about them, Mom?’ and she’d say, ‘It distracts my teachers’ and my children’s time and my student learners for the last month of preparations before the exam.’ She found this a loathsome experience not only for the students and the staff, but it didn’t lead to learning in a productive manner that added anything to the kids’ self-esteem, selfworth, or ability to learn anything that was remotely, to my mother’s thinking, valuable to them for the course of their lives.
“You know, what happens afterwards with those things is what I think is even more reprehensible. I understand that this is not the government’s fault, but when these test results get FOIPed by the Fraser Institute for their publishing results, what occurs in our communities is that people cross-compare and analyze what their kids’ scores were in one section of town vis-à-vis another. Then assumptions are made that teachers are better over at this district than that district. This is the type of combativeness and divisiveness that I don’t believe defines Alberta and shouldn’t continue, at least at the grade 3 level.
“Given that many people would wish to speak on this issue, those are my reasons primarily for supporting this motion. God bless the teachers of Alberta.
Speaker Ken Kowalski: “Hon. member, just so I understand. Mr. Bruseker, a former member of this Assembly who is in the gallery, is your former teacher?”
Mr Hehr: “Yes.”
Mr Kowalski: “And you are now in the Assembly.”
Mr Hehr: “Yes.”
Mr Kowalski: “I now understand.”
Teresa Woo-Paw (PC—Calgary-Mackay): “It is my pleasure to rise to speak in support of Motion 503, sponsored by the hon. Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake. First, I’d like to state that I believe in regular testing, whether it is the assessment of learning or assessment for learning. I believe that they both are important parts of education. While I believe in the value of regular testing, I believe there are strong merits in re-examining how assessment tests for grade 3 students are conducted as well as the communication of such tests with the students’ parents, education systems, and the public.
“The grade 3 provincial achievement test is currently structured in such a public and formal manner that teachers are teaching to the test, spending disproportionate amounts of time on the PAT. Eightyear- old children are put through unnecessary substantial and emotional stress in preparation for as well as responding to the test and the outcomes, and the bigger context of the student population is not integrated into the overall interpretation of the test results.
“Mr. Speaker, while I have received input from constituents and stakeholders, with a high majority of them in support of the motion, I myself as a parent believe in the need to develop our children’s ability to handle stressful, demanding situations and have put my own children in music programs as additional discipline to experience structural learning, competition, and examinations. Arriving at the decision to support this motion was not the easiest one for me. It took some back and forth.
“As a first-generation Canadian, having come from a highly conformative and competitive educational system in Asia, I have seen many times over the psychological scar from intensive examinations linger on many people for years. People have recurring nightmares about examinations. Remembering the view of my grandfather, the first of three generations of educators in my family, about Canada to immigrants, that this country is purgatory for the middle-aged but that it is heaven for the young, I believe that efforts to alleviate unnecessary and sometimes unfair stress on our young students are worthy considerations and act in keeping our children’s childhood experience as heavenly as possible.
“I’m pleased to support Motion 503 today.”
Arno Doerksen (PC—Strathmore–Brooks): “It’s a privilege for me to speak this afternoon as well in support of Motion 503. I certainly thank the Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake for her work on Motion 503. Our excellent education system, the importance of teachers, the great opportunity that students have in Alberta to learn, I think, is evidenced by the keen interest in the matter that Motion 503 draws our attention to. The Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake makes a compelling argument for an alternative approach to assessment for learning. I think that certainly her experience and the interest that she has generated in this issue speak well and make a compelling argument for our reconsideration of the way we do these tests.
“I would not support this motion if it were only seeking to eliminate all assessment measures. This motion does not do that. I have some concern about the wording regarding the elimination of achievement tests. That’s been mentioned by other speakers. However, I think that this being a motion urging the government to consider this provides opportunity to deal with this in a reasonable manner. I have no problem with testing. However, the fact that students learn in different ways says to me that alternative assessment measures are warranted.
“I speak from experience both as a student and as a parent that not all students convey their grasp of a subject matter based on a pointin- time test. There must be better ways of considering this. I believe there can be a more effective and better assessment for learning done, and on that basis I support this motion. The motion urges the government to eliminate the PATs and to consider alternative assessments for learning, and on that basis I support this motion.”
Bridget Pastoor (LIB—Lethbridge-East): “I will be brief because I know that there are others and that we’re going to run out of time. I just would actually make sure that I’m on record as supporting this and thanking the Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake for bringing this forward. Clearly – clearly – by the support we have in the gallery and the number of phone calls that I’ve been receiving, this is a motion that really must be passed.
“I just would like to share one personal story. When I was in high school, your whole year was based on a two-hour exam. I didn’t really do all that well on those exams, so I came away with the idea that I was stupid. I came away with the idea that I was stupid, and I quit after high school. I ran into a prof that I was having coffee with after I’d had my children and gotten married, and she said to me: ‘Bridget, you’re intelligent. What you aren’t is educated.’
“I went back to school when I was 45, and I took that attitude with me. I said to the teacher that had to get me through grade 12 chem that they made me repeat and that I couldn’t understand that. Just because they hadn’t split the atom when I went to school didn’t mean I had to repeat chemistry. However, what I had said to this fellow was: ‘I don’t give a damn if I learn anything. Just get me through this exam.’ That’s the attitude that I think sometimes testing brings. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have some kind of an evaluation, but I truly believe that we can damage little eightyear- old psyches that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Those test results follow them with every single teacher that they will get from grade 3 to grade 12, so please, please, let’s pass this motion.”
Rob Anderson (PC—Airdrie–Chestermere): “I’d like to rise and speak to Motion 503, the elimination of grade 3 provincial achievement testing as sponsored by my colleague the hon. Member for Bonnyville-Cold Lake. I want to thank and compliment the hon. member on doing so, on bringing this motion forward. She’s a passionate teacher, and she’s passionate about our kids and about our students.
“I think that there are good things and bad things – I’ll keep this short – about standardized testing. I think the benefits are that you have an opportunity to assess the system, how it’s working, if information is getting to students. It makes the system somewhat accountable, and I think that’s good. It’s also good to have some information for parents out there. However, I have to say that I’ve always thought that timed standardized testing is just a real silly way of assessing student achievement. I mean, all it really does is test the ability of a child to regurgitate points of information as quickly as possible. I just don’t see how on earth that can show that somebody is learning a subject. I’ve felt that way for a long time, so I’m going to support this motion.
“I would like to suggest, before the hon. Member for Calgary- Varsity gets too excited that I’m agreeing with him on something, that I still do very much . . . [interjection] This is harder for me than it is for you.
“I would like to very much say that I do think there should be some sort of standards in the testing. It’s just that this timed testing just does not make sense, doesn’t cut it. So I will be supporting Motion 503.”
Darshan Kang (LIB—Calgary-McCall): “It is a great pleasure to rise in support of the motion to eliminate the provincial achievement tests for grade 3 and to consider alternative assessments for learning.
“I think a lot has been said about, you know, putting eight-year-olds through the tests. It’s very stressful not only for them; I believe it’s stressful for the teachers as well. You know, I think the teachers can pass on the stress to the kids, too, and the poor kids have to live with that for the rest of their lives. Even the teachers, with the time taken away for the tests, end up teaching the kids only eight and a half months instead of 10 months. There’s a cost involved in this. The money going towards the tests could be spent elsewhere.
“The teachers do their assessments throughout the year, and I think that they are the best judges to test the students. There are a lot more other reasons, you know, to support Motion 503, but since there is not much time, I will be supporting it. I want to congratulate the member for bringing forward Motion 503.”
Mrs Leskiw: “I would like to thank my hon. colleagues who spoke to this motion. I would like to again emphasize that part of the effectiveness of our world-class education system is based on our willingness to continually improve it to better meet the needs of our children. That is why I have introduced this motion on whether provincial achievement tests for grade 3 students are the best mechanism for learning assessment. This past hour we have discussed the many challenges with this assessment test: its timing, its effectiveness, and the impact it has on our children.
“Mr. Speaker, I believe that other assessment methods would better meet the needs of our children, teachers, and the educational system as a whole. Therefore, I thank my colleagues for their consideration of this motion and ask all members from all parties to support my Motion 503.”
To review the status of legislation of interest to the Association, please consult Bills and Motions 2009.