Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Reading between the lines of lower test scores

This was written by Phil McRae who is an executive staff officer with the Alberta Teacher's Association. This post first appeared here and is in response to the Calgary Herald's Editorial.

by Phil McRae

The Calgary Herald editorial asserts I portrayed Alberta students’ declining scores on an international standardized reading test as “good news of a sort.” This assertion is untrue and offensive.

In the original interview about recent international test results, I addressed three significant concerns, none of them good news of any sort.

First, I raised an alarm about deteriorating conditions in Alberta classrooms. Communities across our province are feeling the pressures of a booming economy. Teachers are not immune to these forces and have been struggling with much larger classes and declining resources and supports for students with complex special needs.

Contributing to this complexity is the fact that about one in every four Alberta students is learning English as an additional language.

Despite these challenges (and others such as the stain of child poverty), Alberta’s 15-year-old students continue to rank second in the world in reading according to the latest Programme for International Student Assessment results.

Second, the Alberta Teachers’ Association, along with the medical community, is concerned that research indicates children as young as eight years old are spending between five and eight hours a day in front of screens (smartphones, video games and televisions).

Those who work with children, families, schools and communities are asking serious questions about the effects of online digital activities on health and mental well-being. Of particular concern is how late-night screen time decreases sleep quality and quantity and negatively affects children’s readiness to learn and read.

Finally, I talked about reading enjoyment and how an obsession with standardized testing in Grade 3 might impinge on it. Research out of Ontario shows that the percentage of Grade 3 students who said they “like to read” declined radically from 76 per cent in 1998-99 to 50 per cent in 2010-11.

Standardized tests emphasize ranking, promote timed reading skills and encourage students to become good test-takers. Standardized testing in Alberta’s Grades 3, 6 and 9 transforms reading into an uninspiring, tedious chore.

Teachers in Alberta are striving to cultivate in students both proficiency and lifelong enjoyment of reading. When children and youth read well, it establishes a solid foundation for learning and engages them in one of life’s great pleasures.

If we are to improve students’ reading, we must identify and address the real challenges facing children and youth in our classrooms. Alberta teachers greatly appreciate the efforts of Postmedia newspapers that participate in Raise-A-Reader campaigns. It would be helpful if the newspapers would make the same efforts to explore the complexities around students learning to read, rather than focusing on the single issue of test scores.

1 comment:

  1. Joe. thank you for another excellent post. The concluding paragraph points out a dilemma that we face with the news media, politicians, and the general public. It is so much easier to distill a complex issue into a single issue with complications much like a novel. Test scores, the tip of the educational ice berg, are easy to point to and question unlike the underlying, complex, and dynamic conditions that may or may not lead to the problems. Without a conversation of great depth, which is not on the horizon, with our bureaucratic and political handlers the same will continue to happen.

    I agree with Phil McRae about the conditions that exist. I disagree with the premise that could be mistakenly drawn that these are new conditions. He has fallen into the same trap as the people who challenged him initially about the test scores. What about the 1 out 4 children in our province who has not finished school and is not included in those statistics? The classroom conditions have been in decline for some time and continue to decline. The 27% rate of withdrawal has been consistent and persistent for some time. Again, I point to the need for a real conversation that takes us beyond the polarity of positions and into the complexity of our classrooms and societal needs.

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