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Controversy over student exams

Philippe Morin
Northern News Services

Inuvik (Nov 27/06) - A test administered by the NWT's Department of Education has received a failing grade from the Alberta Teachers' Association, who is dissatisfied with its methods and call it inaccurate.
NNSL Photo/graphic

Like all Grade 1 students, Inuvik's 6-year-old Kenny Alfred Stewart will have to learn Math and English. A new territorial survey said many students have trouble with these courses. - NNSL file photo

However, the test has been praised by the NWT Department of Education as a way to examine students' aptitudes, and determine where they need to improve.

Last week, Education, Culture and Employment Minister Charles Dent released the results of the Alberta Achievement Tests and Functional Grade Levels exam.

The annual standardized tests - so named because they were developed by the province of Alberta - have been administered to students throughout the territory since 2005.

The 2006 results showed students had a slight edge over last year's test results in certain categories, but especially struggled at the early high school level.

One positive category was, perhaps surprisingly, mathematics.

In Grades 1 to 6, it was found that most NWT students were functioning at a level higher than the curriculum's basic requirement.

According to the test results, in Grade 1, 86 per cent of students understood the required math for their age group.

This number slid to 67 per cent by Grade 6.

Literacy skills - meaning both students' writing and understanding of books - registered lower than math.

In the English Language Arts category, only 67 per cent of Grade 3 students, 53 per cent of Grade 6 students and 58 per cent of Grade 9 students achieved "acceptable results."

While the Alberta Achievement Test has been praised by government as a way to monitor students' progress, it has encountered strong resistance from teachers' groups.

The Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) has called the tests unfair and misleading.

In an article hosted on the ATA's website, University of Alberta professor Peter Calder conducted an independent review of the tests and found them to be flawed.

The ATA article listed six points which criticized how the tests are administered, graded and interpreted.

"Achievement tests are well-developed and are a valuable tool in monitoring," read the article.

"However, especially at the elementary-school level, one-shot academic assessment is fraught with error."

NWT Teachers' Association President Amanda Mallon said it's still too early to decide the value of the tests.

She said standardized testing does have its flaws, but thought the tests might provide "a snapshot" which could be useful to teachers.

"At this date, we don't have a policy," she said in regards to the Alberta Achievement test.

"Last year was the first year for the test and I think we'll continue to follow this data for a while to see what we can learn from it."

The NWT government has said it intends to continue with the Alberta Achievement Tests, as well as "functional grade level" surveys which measure students in many subjects at once.

"We are now in our second year of testing at the territorial level," said Education Minister Dent in a press release.

"As we monitor our results in these two initiatives over time, they will become useful tools for Northwest Territories schools, teachers and parents in monitoring and improving student learning."