Aboriginal Education and Assessing Students' Ways of Knowing: Standardized Tests vs Multiple Ways of Knowing

Article excerpt

The issues of accountability in Aboriginal education have high relevance in light of the call for increased accountability in band operated schools, in policy directions for alignment of band school curriculum to provincial/territorial standards and learning outcomes, as well as for how the public schools are supporting Aboriginal students.

A book, Assessing Students' Ways of Knowing, grew out of a First Nations Special Education Conference held in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in 2008. The aim of the conference was to explore the complexities of assessment as it might be meaningful and relevant for First Nations learners. It sought a better understanding of varied practices in assessment for learning as integral aspects of teaching. Further, it sought ways ensuring that processes and procedures of accountability adopted in education systems (in this case First Nations systems) are relevant to the aspirations and purposes of education for that community.

In 2006, for a special issue ?? Our Schools I Our Selves, a colleague, Bruce Karlenzig and I co-wrote an article, "Accountability and Aboriginal Education: Dilemmas, Promises and Challenges," questioning the congruence of dominant mainstream accountability processes and procedures and the vision and broader goals espoused by Aboriginal people for education. Since then, an effort to (re)define success in Aboriginal learning has been undertaken by the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL) - Aboriginal Learning Knowledge Centre www.ccl-cca.ca (AbLKC) where I served in a coordinating role. From a learning point of view, working at the AbLKC offered a privileged position to be among many respected elders, community leaders, professionals, scholars, and thinkers; to listen; to read their work; and to learn with them.

The conference and the articles published in Assessing Students' Ways of Knowing attest that teachers and leaders in education systems, including those in band schools and leaders within the broader context of society, are not adverse to student evaluation and assessment, per se, when viewed as an integral component of student learning and teaching. Rather, these issues must be interrogated or understood within a broader macro-picture of current understandings and directions in Aboriginal lifelong learning and take into account the cultural and situated historical and societal experiences of First Nations students.

Nor were participants adverse to the use of evidence or information collected on an intermittent basis to provide 'a snapshot in time' to inform change in policy and practice at the school and system level, and at provincial, territorial and federal government levels. What they did express are misgivings about the intentions and purposes of calls for accountability and about the use of 'standardized tests' to collect information on how well students fare in particular subject areas. The use of norm referenced standardized tests is questioned on the basis of their genesis as instruments of ranking and in the face of evidence that such tests are culturally and socio-economically biased.

In Assessing Students' Ways of Knowing, Alfie Kohn writes in "Standardized Testing and Its Victims" that "The main objectives of these tests are to rank, not rate; to spread out the scores, not gauge the quality of a given student or school." Christine Stewart in "Targeted Funds and Standardized Tests in British Columbia Aboriginal Schools," emphasizes the fact that, "If there is any consistent finding in education research, it is that performance in school and success in standardized tests is closely tied to the socio-economic status of the families of students, withschool programs making only a small contribution."

Frank Beck in "How Do Rural Schools Fare Under a High Stakes Testing Regime?," expresses concern that results of high stakes testing programs based on standardized testing results may well pose a disadvantage for rural schools who often face higher levels of inequality, physical and social isolation, limited economic opportunities and fewer educational resources. …