Royal Commission on Learning Report: Short Version

Royal Commission on Learning

Assessment: How we know what students learn

One of the newfangled theories that's gained some currency in recent years is known as "outcome-based education." While somewhat more intricate and controversial than you'd expect, we use it here to mean that schools describe what students are expected to know when they graduate, and then rigorously assess their success in doing so. As one long-time Canadian educator commented, "This seems so eminently sensible that there must be something wrong with it."

We couldn't have said it better ourselves. It seems obvious to us that the public school system is responsible to the public, and owes it to the public to demonstrate how well it's doing with our children. It seems equally obvious that in learning, as in most other endeavours, your family is helpless to assist you to improve yourself unless you and they know the criteria for success and how close you come to meeting them. Finally, what holds for the individual holds for the system: its programs too must be assessed to determine if they're working properly. So we take a stand on behalf of close monitoring of every child's progress right from the earliest years, and of the system itself at every level, in order that both can learn to be even better.

But there's a catch here. All of this is easier said than done. We're concerned that too many citizens over-simplify the testing process. It's the simplest thing in the world to test what a student is able to remember today from yesterday's lesson, but it's also of strictly limited value. The quality of learning is not easily or effectively tested with simple quantitative measures. As the focus of education moves toward raising the levels of literacies for all students, so the traditional functions of schools - to slot students into future life chances or to make dubious comparisons among them using superficial measures - must be changed.

Testing for real understanding, for a student's capacity to think and reason, takes far more sophistication that this; in the trade, it's called authentic assessment, and mostly it must be done by teachers. That's why those parents who emphasize standardized tests almost exclusively, which they believe are teacher-proof, are missing a crucial truth. In the end, no one knows the student's capacities, or is in a position to assess them in all their nuances and complexity, better than the classroom teacher. That's why we make several recommendations designed to build teacher expertise in assessment, with a view to improving teaching and learning, and to making more information available to parents and the public about what's being taught and learned.

Further to that end, we recommend the development of a common provincial report card for each grade. This Ontario Student Achievement Report would relate directly to the explicit outcomes and standards of the given year or course, and would be the main vehicle for communicating to students and parents thorough information about the student's progress.

But we also recognize the need to go beyond the opinions of the individual teacher. We've already said that there should be universal literacy tests for all students both in Grade 3 (where there should be numeracy test as well) and in Grade 11, to guarantee that kids neither continue their primary and secondary studies nor graduate from high school without mastering the foundation skills required for all subsequent learning. For this purpose we've called for the creation of a small, independent accounting agency to (among other things) implement and report on these two universal assessments, among other things. This Office of Learning Assessment and Accountability would report on and make recommendations for improvement each year, not just to the Ministry but to the public at large.

And in order that the system itself operates at its peak, we recommend more regular assessment of all courses and programs of learning through random sampling of students across the province. That could help us know whether changes should be made either to course content or to teaching methods.

We also support continuing the recent practice of involving Ontario students in national and international assessments. But we issue a strong caution here. These assessments aren't horse races and can't be interpreted as such. They are complex learning tools that require careful analysis. Neither critics of the system nor the media make a useful contribution when they trumpet clear and unequivocal verdicts about the relative merit of various school systems based on results from these exercises. For similar reasons, we have little sympathy for so-called league tables that purport to rank individual schools by levels of success. There are many variables that go into making a good school, and these comparisons invariably ignore and distort the complex reality that every school represents.

Some of you may remember the publicity last October given to school-by-school and board-by-board results of the province-wide Grade 9 reading and writing test. The board of education of the City of York reported grades that were the worst among the Metro Toronto boards and below the provincial average. It's also true, according to a questionnaire that accompanied the test, that a third of all York students come from homes where English isn't spoken, compared to a provincial average of 14 percent; York's unemployment rate is higher than the provincial average, and it has substantial poverty; and 20 percent of its residents have no more than a Grade 9 education. Only one media report we saw noted these data, and it's fair to assume only a tiny fraction of Ontarians are aware of them. We're not saying these factors are the cause of York's showing, but only irresponsible people would fail to take them into account.

There are few short-cuts to sensible monitoring of the education system. If we want serious information about how our students and schools are doing in preparing for the 21st century, we will have to accept that the process is long and involved, that it's not a series of horse races with clear-cut winners and losers, and that unless its primary purpose is to improve learning, we may as well not bother doing it at all.

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