AIMS Fails Learning 101

The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) has just released its report about our public education system. On the local news, the Director of AIMS urged the New Brunswick Government to bring back standardized testing. The Minister, Kelly Lamrock, is supposed to reply this afternoon. We’ll see what stuff our politicians are made of.

So what does it matter that our local high school received a C+? About as much as the fact that I got a D in Grade 9 French class. I now speak French fluently. I also got an A in Grade 12 Algebra and my math is abysmal, even after two years of university level math. Face it; in the long run, there is no correlation between success in life and the grades you got.

Creating a lovely matrix filled with absolute numbers may look pretty and may get you some press time but it fails to inform us about the state of our education system. The time to measure is several years after graduation, when all of the short-term test results are irrelevant and what you really learned is what you have left.

Our neighbour to the South has been pushing standardized testing through its “No Child Left Behind” legislation, and look at the results, according to Monty Neil:

Key problems with the law include over-emphasizing standardized testing, narrowing curriculum and instruction to focus on test preparation; over-identifying schools in need of improvement; using sanctions that do not help improve schools; inappropriately excluding or retaining in grade low-scoring children to boost test results; and inadequate funding. The law not only punishes schools, it damages educational quality, particularly for those the law purports to help – low income children, children of color, those with learning disabilities, and those who are just learning English.

Is this the direction that AIMS wants to take our system?

Standardized tests tell us little about learning, and report cards for schools only create “talk points” for partisan debate about education. Standardized tests, for students or for schools, are all about control. Yeats said that education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. Fire is much harder to control.

Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth and The Case Against Standardized Testing, has this to say about grades:

Second, I’d been looking for an alternative to grades because research shows three reliable effects when students are graded: They tend to think less deeply, avoid taking risks, and lose interest in the learning itself. The ultimate goal of authentic assessment must be the elimination of grades.

In another article, Kohn refers to a Journal of Educational Psychology study that examined just how actively students were engaged in learning while taking standarized tests:

To be sure, there are plenty of students who think deeply and score well on tests—and plenty of students who do neither. But, as a rule, it appears that standardized-test results are positively correlated with a shallow approach to learning.

Therefore, I will not grade the AIMS report, but rather examine it from a performance-based pass/fail perspective:

  • Does the report help policy makers to improve learning in the educational system? Fail
  • Does the report inform the general public about the core issues in public education? Fail
  • Does the report raise the public profile of AIMS? Pass

4 Responses to “AIMS Fails Learning 101”

  1. Janet Clarey

    Hi Harold. I feel sad whenever I read about the failure of public schools. With three kids in school, I am continually struggling to keep them creative, engaged, and asking questions – not just answering them. Standards-based education disgusts me as a parent. To me scoring well on tests and improved learning is a paradox. The results of the NCLB legislation will be felt for many years.

  2. Harold

    I just hope that we don’t go down that same path, Janet. With our Provincially-controlled public school systems though, it would be more difficult.

  3. Cindy

    DO NOT GO DOWN THAT ROAD! BC standardized testing and it takes up quite a bit of time – even the grade 10 & 12 provincial exams tie us up. It means that if my students want to spend more time on something, we can’t because we have to make sure we get in poetry analysis, or whatever will be on the exam.
    My kids had a wonderful time in kindergarten and grade 1 – today it’s very heavily tied to testing. I hear stories from friends with young kids and they don’t want to go to school. I find it interesting that we (in Canada) look to a country that ranks low on the list of countries that are doing well in education. Last I heard, Finland was number 1.

  4. Amanda Cockshutt

    When we spent a year in Sweden my oldest child was 8 (would have been in grade 3 in Canada). I was surprised, to put it mildly, that not only was there no testing, there were no report cards until grade 8! I found this silly at the time. My views have come around 180° since that time. What mattered to the Swedes was how the child was developing, both psychologically and academically. Three times a year you had an “utvecklings samtal”, literally a “developmental conversation” with the teacher.

    The result of that year? The 8 year old became fluent in Swedish, and got to the point of reading chapter books in it. She completed the entire Canadian grade 3 math curriculum (in Swedish). It was all done at her own pace (almost nothing was taught as a class activity) in a school day that ran 8:10 to 1 pm!

    I have come to see through the experiences of my children how much school time is wasted with testing, both in class and standardized. Why do we need to rank the kids so tightly at this level? Maybe this is important in high school, but seems silly in elementary school. Besides, a huge fraction of the students are getting grades that are higher than the normal range, so these grades are largely meaningless anyway.

    I really hope we can pull away from this over testing trend.


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