Riding the Tiger of Educational Accountability in Nova Scotia1
Corbett, Mike, Our Schools, Our Selves
Where have we been?
In the summer of 1994, a group of teachers and academics met at the Teacher's College in Truro for a Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) sponsored conference on assessment and accountability entitled "Focus on Trust." There was considerable naïve optimism at this conference about teachers' ability to take control of the assessment agenda. We looked at ideas like portfolio assessment and other rich forms of classroom-based assessment practices that were well supported in the literature. Experts encouraged us to develop these thick assessment practices that offer direct support for learning. It all made sense. It was supported by the literature. Sound assessment practices would support sensible pedagogy. The discourse was one of destandardizing assessment and one of making it sensitive to the individuality of the learner.
By 1996, when the Atlantic Provinces Education Foundation had in place its foundational documents and began to realign curriculum around the idea of learning outcomes, another group met at the NSTU building to try and understand outcome based education. At the time we were assured by bureaucrats that we would retain control over the core assessment agenda and that high stakes standardized tests were not in the cards for the province. I tried to make the argument that when we focus all of our energy on a predefined outcome, the logical result is a progressive narrowing of focus onto increasingly minute micro-outcomes along with an increasingly standardized assessment system. Teachers at that conference immediately sensed that this meant that we were headed back into a regime of provincial testing. The representatives from the Department denied it.
But this is now very old news. Since the late 1990s, discussions of assessment, curriculum, pedagogy and policy discourse shifted from the more bottom-up language of the effective schools movement and ideas of authentic assessment to the top-down language of accountability and large scale assessment. High stakes assessment is just one face of this movement.
Let's be clear about something: school assessments have always been "high stakes" regardless of the form they take. People's lives are often made or broken on the basis of educational assessments. The real question is who is in control of the assessment process. From the early 70s when the old provincial examinations were eliminated in Nova Scotia, teachers acquired considerable control over assessment. I have a feeling that in the history of education in this province, the period from the early 70s to the early 90s will be looked upon as a kind of golden age when teacher professionalism looked like it had a chance. I think our ability to control assessment is probably one of the most fundamental markers of professionalism. At any rate, by the late 1990s it was quite clear that the terms of our professionalism had been redefined. We no longer control a significant part of the assessment agenda, we administer it.
In virtually all corners of the public service and in most professions, trust in expert judgment has been replaced by a focus on quantified tools to measure performance. As John Risley said recently, quoting the New Brunswick french-fry magnate Harrison McCain, "if you can't measure it, you can't improve it." Well, this might have seemed an odd statement a decade ago when it was more plausible to liken education to human relationships (eg. the parentchild or other family, mentorship, friendship or communitarian connections) but today it passes with little comment. Nova Scotia Deputy Minister of Education Dennis Cochrane put it slightly differently when he commented recently in reference to the expansion of a literacy assessment program to grade 3, that the critics no longer ask whether or not we should test, but rather when we should test.
There was a time when some eyebrows might have been raised about whether or not measuring love or …
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Publication information: Article title: Riding the Tiger of Educational Accountability in Nova Scotia1. Contributors: Corbett, Mike - Author. Magazine title: Our Schools, Our Selves. Volume: 15. Issue: 2 Publication date: Winter 2006. Page number: 57+. © Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Fall 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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