New Grade 3 assessment program requires fixes but is better than PATs
Late last month, Grade 3 students started writing the new Student Learning Assessments (SLAs) as part of the pilot year for implementation. SLAs are being introduced to replace the previous Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs) that had been in place and largely misused for the past 30-odd years in Alberta.
Unfortunately, although not entirely surprisingly, there are hiccups associated with SLA implementation. The online delivery has inevitably introduced a number of technological challenges for schools and for students. Availability of computers, adequate bandwidth and immediacy of tech support are all important for successful implementation, and some schools have been able to address these challenges better than others.
Concerns related to time may be harder to resolve. So far, these assessments are taking considerable time, not just to administer, but also for planning, preparation and set-up. Some students are taking hours for each of the four parts of the assessment.
There is also a hefty time burden being placed on teachers. There needs to be PD support for teachers trying to make sense of new, complex rubrics. And then there’s the marking. Up to 45 minutes per child could be needed from already busy classroom teachers, which could easily add half a week’s worth of work.
Again, some places are dealing better with this issue than others, but allocating substitute teacher time is not an ideal fix, as this still requires planning on the part of regular teachers. Accessing substitutes involves dipping into limited local and school budgets to subsidize costs associated with a provincial program.
I am mindful that, as with any new technology or process, issues with the SLAs will smooth out as they are used more frequently. Familiarity will bring about some efficiency and comfort.
It is that familiarity that leaves some Grade 3 teachers longing for a return to PATs. That would be a mistake. While the legacy of former education minister Jeff Johnson will be filled with misguided and failed reforms, SLAs should not be one of them.
PATs had big issues. They were summative assessments that provided no meaningful information that could be used to improve student learning. They were norm referenced, telling us more about how one student compared to another than about the individual capacities of each student. The results were misused by the Fraser Institute and others to rank and compare school quality when that was never their intent nor their design. They were, at the end of the day, a typical high-stakes standardized test used for accountability purposes that did more damage than good.
SLAs are not perfect — far from it — but they offer a promise, a promise of more meaningful information that can be used to guide student learning as opposed to simplistic end-of-year data points that offer little useful information above finding out where rich kids attend school.
We need to work on having the warts removed. We have to address the serious and legitimate workload concerns of teachers, and we have to strive to streamline the processes around administration. The last minister of education did not take teacher workload concerns seriously and was not willing to listen to the Association as a representative of teachers. A favourable early response from new Education Minister Gordon Dirks offers hope on these fronts.
Making the transition from PATs to SLAs will be worth it for students and for teachers. And so the Association is collecting stories from teachers on our website about how implementation is going (bit.ly/SLAfeedback). This is not meant to be a gripe page to undermine SLAs; rather, it is meant to be a place where we can collect the stories to inform our feedback to government on how they need to be improved.
With the Association and Alberta Education working together, we may be able to get this right and finally move forward from the troublesome era of PATs. But success on this initiative will ultimately depend on the ability of the province and boards to support teachers. ❚
I welcome your comments—contact me at email@example.com.