Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Large-scale testing in schools scrapped

Reading now the key focus

By Emma Graney, Leader-Post

Large-scale standardized testing in Saskatchewan schools is off the table, as the focus shifts to reading and First Nations achievement.

The move ends more than a year of to-and-fro decisions about the introduction of standardized testing.

"We know that kind of large-scale testing regime wouldn't work for the teachers," Education Minister Don Morgan said earlier this week. "I don't think it benefits the students and I don't think it benefits the province."

For months, provincial government officials remained adamant the plan was simply on hold until the province consulted with teachers, students, school divisions and boards for the Student First initiative.

But what it heard from those consultations was resounding unhappiness about the notion of standardized testing.

Now, says the minister, even the term "standardized testing" has "become absolutely toxic" in Saskatchewan.

"It wasn't put on pause so we could turn around and go ahead with it three months later after things had cooled off," Morgan said.

"We put it on pause because it wasn't working. Teachers hated it. It was a road we didn't need to go down."

The move to scrap standardized testing became public on Friday at the Saskatchewan School Boards Association (SSBA) spring assembly in Regina, as government released a sector plan to guide education into 2020.

The SSBA, Saskatchewan Teachers Federation, the Opposition and education stakeholders all seem to be on the same page when it comes to the plan - their resounding response being, "We are pleased government listened."

Given that more than 1,000 people from around the province gave their input into the document, though, perhaps that's not surprising.

But there are concerns.

Education critic Trent Wotherspoon questioned a target that says "operational education spending will not exceed the general wage increase and inflationary costs within the sector" by 2017. That's a potential "fiscal straitjacket," he said. Marc Spooner, an associate professor of education at the University of Regina, has been an outspoken critic of the standardized testing idea since the start.

With this new plan, "it sounds like (government) really listened to the backlash," he said, but added he also wonders where the millions of dollars previously earmarked for testing will now go.

Morgan said it's likely the ministry will go back to the treasury and ask for those funds to be "redeployed" to front-line initiatives.

While deputy minister Dan Florizone admitted the plan may look a little "underwhelming," he said that's part of bringing some focus to education.

"We're going to do two things, and we're going to do them very, very well," he said.

Take reading, for example.The target is to have at least 78 per cent of Grade 3 students reading at or above grade level by 2015.

The idea is to draw on current successes from around the province, like the Chinook School Division. Its director, Liam Choo-Foo, will head up the new provincial reading team.

Next year, the focus will likely be on math, then writing.

"Rather than take a focus on assessment or testing ... it's curriculum, it's instruction, assessment, professional development," Florizone said.

The other major target in the plan is to develop a First Nations and Metis student achievement initiative.

It will be based on a successful New Zealand model called Te Kotahitanga, which was developed to improve the educational achievement of Maori secondary school students. As for uptake, Morgan suggested it will be "the willing" who will embrace the plan first.

"We don't want to ram it down anybody's throat," he said. "Our goal is to ... take pressure off, and things that were unnecessarily antagonistic towards teachers, try to get them out of the classroom, out of their hair, so that they can do what they do best, which is teach kids."

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