BE IT RESOLVED, that the Alberta Teachers’ Association urge the Minister of Education to withdraw Alberta from participation in future iterations of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).
After careful consideration including a review of the cost and benefits associated with continued participation in a number of key international benchmarking programs, the 2016 Annual Representative Assembly approved a call to withdraw from what has become known in the policy research community as the growing “educational accountability arms race.”
The Alberta Teachers’ Association will urge the minister of Education to withdraw Alberta from participation in future iterations of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).
In speaking to the resolution, vice-president Greg Jeffery acknowledged that “these assessments do provide some indicators of the relative strengths and challenges of the educational system, albeit on a very narrow range of measures.”
However, he went on to outline the growing concern that too many policy makers and analysts have distorted the original intent of international assessments.
“Instead, we need more intelligent approaches that enable students, families and communities to participate in conversations about what gets measured and the values that are reflected in these measures,” he said.
In crafting the position on the resolution it sponsored, Provincial Executive Council considered a growing body of research, including the work of Svein Sjøberg from the University of Oslo, that views the PISA program as a well-intentioned program for systems that has morphed from an assessment tool to a destructive reform project of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
His view is also shared by a group of 60 leading academics that called for the OECD to “slow down the testing juggernaut” in an open letter to Andreas Schleicher published in the Guardian.
In bringing forward the resolution, Council hoped to signal to the government that the preoccupation with international rankings was increasingly narrowing the reform agenda here in Alberta, driven by a narrow economic model of education. For example, despite the many policy framework documents produced by the ministry in the past few years and the millions of dollars spent on curriculum prototyping, throughout the assembly, delegates pointed to the need to address the obstacles for student learning already far too apparent in Alberta classrooms: poverty (now one in six children), crowded classrooms and students with unsupported complex challenges amidst broken provincial student assessment and accountability structures.
Instead of economic models that drive a narrow approach to accountability, delegates heard that governments need to support the growth of professional responsibility by building the collective judgment of teachers — a principle advanced by experts such as David Berliner and Pasi Sahlberg, and one that has supported success in our international partners such as Finland.
Informed by his consultations with colleagues in other teacher federations across Canada and internationally, president Mark Ramsankar observes that the mantra of government officials to focus on “literacy and numeracy as foundations for a vaguely defined competency-focused curriculum is little more than a page torn from the OECD playbook.”
Across the OECD countries, Ramsankar hears from his federation colleagues that the claims that international assessments such as PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS, while supposedly used to evaluate education systems worldwide, instead “see governments cherry-pick the results that confirm their predetermined conclusions and ignore information that contradicts their policies.”
In elaborating Council’s position, Jeffery cited the example, over the past year, of government officials attempting to stir up unfounded concern over declining results in mathematics, when in fact there is little evidence that a decline has occurred.
“The result of this statistical alchemy has been a ham-handed effort in many school districts to focus on ‘math facts’ and even more awkward efforts to hothouse teachers and students to increase performance on mathematics assessments,” Jeffery observed.
Looking back to the past two years, when “little of consequence has been achieved in the curriculum reform file except the disastrous student learning assessment pilot,” Ramsankar said the government has failed to address systemic problems because it has been distracted by a focus on “gathering more data about issues Alberta teachers already know plenty about.”
Citing the recent government decision to sign on to TALIS, Ramsankar observed, “after the costly Malatest workload study confirmed what other Association research studies found, the government is now committing more resources to what …? Another study on teaching and learning conditions?”
While there has been some media pick-up regarding the passage of the ARA resolution, it is important to put this call into international perspective. As Sam Sellar, a researcher from the University of Queensland, suggests, the public policy question surrounding the production of international rankings and large data infrastructures remains largely answered by governments: who decides which data is worth collecting and the values that determine what is worth measuring (consider the universal focus on mathematics, science) and who owns the data and what is done with it?
In his view, “accountability has become the system and we need more intelligent approaches that enable students, families and communities to participate in conversations about what gets measured and the values that are reflected in these measures.”
In summing up the assembly’s rationale for the resolution, vice-president Jeffery stressed that, by supporting this resolution, Alberta teachers are not opposing standards or rigour.
“They are standing up for what really counts: meaningful measures of student learning that provide the capacity to respond to the learning needs of Alberta students.” ❚
For further information on the Association’s perspective regarding the way forward for a responsive approach to assessing student and system performance, see the document entitled Rich Accountabilities for Public Assurance: Moving Forward Together for a Great School for All, now posted to the Association’s home page at www.teachers.ab.ca.