Feeds:
Posts
Comments

OnlineLearningChildTeacher

A draft Ministry of Education document, leaked to the Toronto Globe and Mail on March 24, 2021, has, once again, stirred the pot in the volatile Ontario education debate over expanding online learning courses. After a year of school shutdowns and off-and-on online learning, the document revealed that Education Minister Stephen Lecce was considering legislation to make “remote learning” a “permanent part” of the K-12 public system.

News that online learning was here to stay was hardly earth-shaking, but it aroused the usual fears of a ‘hidden agenda’ at Ontario’s Queen’s Park. Was it a way of promoting and advancing “parent choice” or the thin edge of the wedge leading to “privatization’ of public education?  Whatever the motivation, the online learning “boogeyman” was back, a year after the first round of controversy, cut-short by COVID-19 and the abrupt transition to emergency home learning.

Minister Lecce seized the high ground in confirming that online learning would continue in post pandemic times. Keeping schools open for in-person schooling would remain the priority, but plans were afoot to ensure that, in September 2021, parents would be given the opportunity to enroll their children in “full-time synchronous remote learning.” In post-pandemic education, online learning would continue to be utilized to ensure “continuity of learning,” to “mitigate learning loss,” and to provide students with access to a wider range of courses.

Ontario’s teacher union leaders reacted as expected, slamming the move, and especially the absence of any prior consultation with frontline educators. “The move to virtual learning was never intended to be permanent: it was a temporary measure intended to deliver emergency instruction during a global health crisis,” claimed Sam Hammond, President of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO). The proposed plan would, he charged, “ negatively affect students, increase inequalities, lower standards…and put us one step closer to the privatization of public education.” Ontario Secondary School Federation president Harvey Bischof was more measured in his criticism, but asked to see evidence that online learning worked to the benefit of students.

The online genie is out of the bottle and will not likely ever be contained or rationed as a supplement to regular programs again. In the case of Ontario, some 400,000 of the province’s 2 million students or 20 per cent have experienced online learning during the 2020-21 school year. While regular in-person learning is far superior for most students, there’s a good argument to be made for expanding course offerings online.

Integrating online courses into the regular program makes good sense, knowing what we now do about the potential for mass disruptions affecting in-class learning time. The final revenge of COVID-19 may strike again, and having an implementable e-learning plan will be part of all future strategic planning in public health and K-12 education. With the capacity to offer comparable virtual learning, for short periods, it’s hard to justify repeated snow day school closures or shutting down operations for a whole range of calamities, including hurricanes, floods, windstorms, boiler meltdowns, or seasonal flu epidemics.

What the Ontario government was proposing back in 2018-19 looks quite different in the light of the COVID-19 educational disruption. The initial Doug Ford government plan to require high school students to complete four online courses from Grades 9 to 12 provoked a firestorm of opposition. It was eventually scaled-back to 2 courses required for graduation. Three courses suggested as online offering possibilities were good ones, Grade 10 career choices, Grade 11 biology, and Grade 12 data management.

What a difference a year makes in K-12 education. Integrating online learning courses into the regular high school program looked radical, scary and disruptive in February of 2020, on the eve of the pandemic. Ontario’s largest school district, Toronto District School Board, not only publicly condemned Minister Lecce in February 2020 for proposing required online courses, but commissioned a teacher- parent – student survey clearly aimed at torpedoing such a plan. Without any real experience in online learning, 81 per cent of parents and 97 per cent of secondary school teachers opposed what were labelled “mandatory e-learning courses.”

What have we learned since the pandemic turned education upside down? Keeping children in school should be the highest priority because its far superior to online substitutes and even compared to the most engaging live stream lessons and videos. The core mission of schools is to provide academic learning, but today’s education includes a far wider range of learning supports and mission-critical psycho-social services. Missing in-person schooling for weeks on end deprives students and families of important lifelines and aggravates socio-economic inequities.

Integrating virtual learning into K-12 education has become the new post-pandemic education imperative. “Continuity of learning” is now more than an aspirational educational catch-phrase when we have the capacity to shift, much more comfortably, from in-person to mixed hybrid or full-time virtual learning. Completing full courses online, much like regularly logging onto Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Webex platform-supported programs, will become more commonplace and, in time, become a normal expectation for students, teachers and parents everywhere. We have seen the educational future and it includes online learning.

Why does expanding online learning still spark fierce resistance in Canadian school systems? How well did school systems do in transitioning to alternative modes of delivery, specifically hybrid learning and full-time online learning? To what extent was Pandemic Education emergency home learning a fair test of the potential for effective e-teaching?  Is it possible to turn back the clock after absorbing the lessons of the pandemic?

 

LexiDakenDeath2021

Dots can be hard to connect, especially when it comes to addressing teen mental health in New Brunswick. Ten years ago, some 1,200 parents and ordinary citizens launched a movement to create a Centre for Excellence for children and youth with complex needs. In the wake of the tragic death of 13-year-old Lexi Daken, it’s fair to ask why, since then, so little has changed for teens in crisis.
The images of that day stay with you. Mobilized by Fredericton parent Maureen Bilerman, hundreds of Dots for Youth advocates descended upon downtown Fredericton to form a human chain, connecting the dots, fingertip-to-fingertip, from the Victoria Health Centre to the Provincial Legislature. That demonstration was sparked by an equally disturbing personal story, but it drew powerful inspiration from a truly ground-breaking report, Connecting the Dots, produced in February 2008 by then Child and Youth Advocate Bernard Richard.
What happened over the past decade is a cautionary tale packing some profound lessons. Shocking and disturbing incidents stir outrage, visionary plans for systemic change appear, the momentum dies down, competing regional interests’ surface, and it all comes unraveled en route to effective implementation.
“Sadly, not much has really changed, “says Bernard Richard, looking back over the past ten to twelve years. “We are still a long way from achieving the goals and implementing the recommendations set out in Connecting the Dots. Despite repeated commitments, revolving door governments, not much has transpired in filling the holes in our community-based network of support for teens in crisis.”
Richard’s report proposed systemic reform, far ahead of its time. Breaking with the conventional social service model, he singlehandedly put “integrated service delivery” on the child and youth services agenda. Back then, it was considered revolutionary to recommend reengineering the system to focus on student needs rather than the priorities of competing government departments.
Seeing that children and youth at-risk were falling through the cracks, Richard proposed integrating services and focusing psych-social- medical resources. “The one child, one file” concept made perfect sense, but takes years to put in place in a siloed system. “Everyone should have access to the same case file, and no one should have to tell their story over and over again,” he insists. “No one would be missed if there was true integrated support and one case manager per file.”

ConnectingDotsNB2010
Successive governments, Liberal and Conservative, have bungled the most important file – the proposed Centre for Excellence, one critically-important project which had the potential to turn the situation around in child and teen mental health services. From 2011 to 2015, a province-wide network for service excellence gained momentum and a consensus formed around locating the hub in Moncton or Fredericton, closest the hospitals with youth psychiatric services.
The May 2015 provincial decision, since rescinded, to build a Centre for Youth Services in Campbellton, essentially ignored the demographics of teen mental health case-loads and ran counter to the vast majority of the community feedback.
Long-time advocates like Dots.NB founder Maureen Bilerman were distraught over the decision and its ramifications. “It’s a sad day for families and youth in crisis,” she said in a series of media interviews. “Shock, disbelief and disappointment” were the words she used to describe her reaction. “Most of the youth-at-risk are from the urban centres of Saint John, Moncton, or Fredericton, and it makes no sense, so it must be a political decision.”
Political advocacy for teen mental health reform may not have reshaped the system, but it has continued to raise awareness and generate plenty of activity. When Bilerman chose to step back, after a decade of pressing for change, her Dots NB organization merged with the longer-established Partners for Youth Alliance, also based in the provincial capital.
Youth in Action mental health activities peaked in the 2018-19 school year, just prior to the pandemic. Some 74,400 students were exposed to mental health activities, held province-wide for two days, dubbed “Ring a Bell” and “Bell Let’s Talk.” Specific programs were delivered in 7 high schools, and some 200 students participated in one-time mental health presentations.
Most students surveyed gave the high school mental health sessions an “Apple” rating, indicating that they found them to be positive experiences. Raising awareness is beneficial, but reaching the students most in need of help remained as elusive as ever.
The Pandemic dealt a significant blow to such school initiatives. School closures in March of 2020 interrupted communications and the Partners for Youth group reportedly experienced “radio silence” from youth and educators in the partnered schools. Students and teachers were, according to the agency, “overwhelmed” and “treading to keep their heads above water.”
School shutdowns adversely affected those who needed guidance, counselling, and supports the most. The Partners for Youth 2019-20 annual report put it rather bluntly: “Many students who had difficulties with Mental Wellness ahead of school closures had fallen off the school’s radar completely.” That has the makings of a youth social service crisis.
The Fredericton agency’s Executive Director John Sharpe has seen it all, over thirty years working with youth-at-risk. Many investigations and reviews have echoed the findings of a 2009 report by Justice Michael McKee, all painting a similar picture of a system that’s “overwhelmed, understaffed and inadequate for the care of youth.”
“We don’t want to rebuild the system,” Sharpe recently commented. “We want a new system… we want a transformed system. What that means is we have youth, family and community at the centre.” Waiting for champions has turned this reform drive into an exhausting decathlon.
The road to youth mental health reform is paved with good intentions, but initiatives either run out of high-test gas, are diverted into cul-de-sacs, or get co-opted by research groups chasing government grants. Far too many reform initiatives end up being ‘studied to death’ or kicked down the road through the commissioning of yet another government report.
What’s really standing in the way of the needed changes? “The outrage is now at an all-time high,” according to Dots for Youth founder Bilerman. “What we lack,” she believes, “is the capacity for transformational change management. Models exist and we could pull it off here in New Brunswick.” Let’s hope the ‘Powers That Be’ are listening.

*Reprinted from the Telegraph-Journal (Provincial), 12 March 2021.

Why does it take a teen mental health tragedy to draw attention to the serious gap in services? What is standing in the way of meaningful action and progress? How typical is New Brunswick of the situation elsewhere?

The COVID-19 pandemic shocks have exposed the fragility of the modern, centralized, top-down bureaucratic education state, identified and analyzed in my 2020 book, The State of the System. A year into the pandemic, the massive disruption has also revealed the limitations of system-bound school change theories (conceived as hybrid “pedagogical and political projects”) ill-equipped to address the immediate crisis in K-12 education.

FullanDrivers2020

Education visionaries, school change theorists, and their academic allies were quick to offer up familiar ideas dipped in “COVID-19” and accompanied by a beguiling ‘build back better” rhapsody. They saw it as a golden opportunity to dream and to finally realize their long-thwarted plans for systemic transformation. The post-pandemic future, in their imagined world, will be a clash of two mutually-exclusive visions: social equality and student well-being or austerity and academic standards – good versus bad. This is, as you will begin to see, a false dichotomy and a misreading of our current educational predicament.

Canadian education consultant Michael Fullan provides the clearest expression to this rather grandiose aspirational vision. Whole system success in a post-pandemic educational universe will come to those who embrace “deep learning” and adopt the right ‘drivers’ of reform. Embracing the ‘human paradigm’ means pursuing ‘well-being and learning,’ ‘social intelligence,’ ‘equality investments,’ and ‘systemness.’ It also means forsaking the wrong drivers of the ‘bloodless paradigm,’ exemplified by ‘academics obsession,’ ‘machine intelligence,’ ‘austerity,’ and ‘fragmentation.’

Global competencies, according to Fullan and his allies, are the wave of the future. His particular formulation, the “Six Cs” are presented as the path to “deep learning:” Character, Citizenship, Collaboration, Communication, Creativity, and Critical Thinking. It’s a new variation on “21st century skills” with character and citizenship grafted onto the original conception and now touted as ‘foundational skills’ seen as critical to making a difference in the world.

This whole conception is, upon closer scrutiny, built upon a house of cards, sustained by an extended argument delivered mostly from a position of authority and without reference to the latest research on how learning happens. So-called “21st century skills” have been around for some thirty years, and, in spite of its higher echelon champions, the formulation has failed to gain traction anywhere, except perhaps in British Columbia and a few American states such as Maine and North Carolina. Furthermore, the “Six C’s” have proven difficult to measure, so much so that even its advocates concede its better to focus on the more easily measured content of academic and subject-specific knowledge, particularly in reading and mathematics.

Critical thinking remains the holy grail of K-12 education, but it’s hard to envision without a grounding in domain specific knowledge. Equipping students with the content knowledge to think critically about a full range of important issues does not exemplify an ‘academic obsession’ but rather a commitment to seeking deeper understanding. Nor are student well-being and academic success necessarily in

Educators looking for a more effective “catch-up” strategy would be well advised to look elsewhere for two vitally-important reasons: (1) the mistaken assumption that an academic focus and student well-being are somehow incompatible; and (2) the gross underestimation of the realities of the “COVID Slide’ and learning loss compromising the future success of today’s pandemic generation of students.

A far better point of departure is provided in the World Bank’s 2020 report, COVID-19 Pandemic Shocks to Education, surveying the collateral damage affecting school systems around the world. The immediate impacts were easier to spot, such as the economic and social costs, greater inequalities in access, and school-level health and safety concerns. Less so is the longer-term impact of “learning loss” and its worst-case mutation, “learning poverty” marked by the inability to read and understand a simple text by 10 years-of-age.

Shoring up the foundations has become a matter of more urgent necessity. If we are facing a “generational catastrophe,” it’s time to reframe the challenges facing K-12 education. Teaching children how to read and to be functional in mathematics are now fundamental to social justice in pandemic times.

What’s driving the “build back better” agenda being promoted by globalists, school change theorists, and high tech evangelists? Should we be focusing, first, on closing the COVID-19 learning gap? Where are the learning recovery plans and strategies when they are needed the most?

NotoCancelMarchBreak

Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce ended the public confusion on February 11, 2021 by announcing that March break would be postponed to the week of April 12. His public rationale was that such a move was prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic and intended to keep students safe while containing community spread of the virus.

The Minister’s announcement did not come out of nowhere.. One of the province’s top doctors, Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, touched off the frenzied public debate back in late January when he claimed that this year’s March school break should be cancelled, in order to prevent a post-holiday spike in COVID-19 cases.


Calling for the cancellation of March break proved to be anything but popular, but Dr. Roumeliotis brought a vitally important issue to the fore – the need to make better use of the upcoming March break down time. Cancelling the holidays sounded punitive, so postponing them for a few weeks is a bit more palatable. It does, however, stand out as a missed opportunity to use the time to offer ‘Catch-Up Academy’ programs to students struggling mightily to make up for lost learning in our schools.


As Eastern Ontario’s medical officer of health, Roumeliotis’s advice carried considerable weight and it prompted Minister Leece to consider his proposal and its merits. Cancelling March break altogether did not go over well with Ontario teacher unions, most notably the OSSTF’s Harvey Bischof and ETFO’s Sam Hammond. Both quickly dismissed any such plan as an ‘tone deaf’ response that ignored the plight of classroom teachers still reeling from a series of educational upheavals and abrupt schedule changes.

Cancelling or postponing the break is not as outlandish as it first sounded, and especially when one considers an additional rationale. Students in K-12 schools, in Ontario’s major metropolitan school districts, have just missed six more weeks of regular in-school schooling, and some have only been in school for five of the past 11 months.


Missing that much in-person schooling has got to have some impact on student learning, especially for those already struggling to keep up because of learning challenges, socio-cultural disadvantages, or language barriers. Yet, sadly, the extent of the so-called “COVID Slide” goes largely undiagnosed and poorly researched here in Canada,


A McKinsey & Company research summary published in December 2020 provided reasonably reliable estimates of the total potential learning loss to the end of the school year in June 2021. While initial American statistical forecast scenarios of massive learning loss have not materialized, the cumulative impact is still substantial, especially in mathematics, with students, on average, likely to lose 5 to 9 months of learning by year’s end. Among American black students, the learning loss in mathematics averages 6 months to a year. All students are suffering losses, but it’s more acute among those who entered the pandemic with the most disadvantages.


International research corroborates the early American projections and demonstrates conclusively that school closures contributed to an actual COVID slide. Studies conducted in September and November of 2020 in the United Kingdom and Belgium, where students missed 2-3 months of school, confirm that students in the middle grades have suffered learning losses in mathematics and language and writing skills have actually gone backward.


Canadian research on learning loss is hard to unearth. One CBC Radio podcast, posted in November 2020 and billed as “COVID Slide’s Impact on Kids Learning,” presented some evidence of the problem, then defaulted to standard pre-pandemic responses, dismissing learning loss concerns and instead focusing on children’s anxieties, mindfulness exercises, and reducing stress through broader and ‘softer’ student assessments.


Two promising Alberta research studies, cited in passing in the CBC Radio podcast, should not be overlooked. Conducted by University of Alberta educational psychology professor George Georgiou, those studies demonstrate that young readers are lagging behind the learning curve in the wake of the pandemic. School shutdowns and the default to online learning contributed to the problem.


A properly designed and implemented “Catch-Up Academy” program might well be what students, teachers and families need right now. It would also be aligned with the best evidence-based research on what works in closing the knowledge and learning gap after lengthy school disruptions.


Supplementing learning time through ‘catch-up” academies, offered over weekends or during student holiday breaks, is one of three recommended responses to cumulative learning loss. The best option is actually high-dosage one-on-one or small group tutoring tied directly to helping students master subject content in math and reading. When that’s not possible, the next-best thing is catch-up programs during holiday breaks offered by highly trained teachers provide subject specific small class instruction, particularly ‘double dose’ math instruction.


Such remedies need to be considered when students miss so much in-person classroom teaching that it is having a detrimental effect on their learning and well-being. They are, however, essentially patchwork projects for school systems where harried and exhausted teachers are unable to provide the support and upgrading required to get at-risk students back on track or to prepare graduating students for the next stage in their education.


The COVID slide is real and it’s time to consider “Catch Up Academy” programs designed to shore up students’ educational foundations in mathematics, reading and writing. Eleven months into the pandemic, it’s time for some constructive innovation to provide the pandemic generation with more focused learning loss recovery programs.

An earlier version of this post appeared in The Globe and Mail, February 11, 2021. 

Why are traditional school holidays so sacrosanct, even during a global pandemic? Was the Eastern Ontario Medical Officer of Health essentially correct in his assessment of the health risks? Why dis Ontario’s Education Minister opt to postpone rather than cancel the one-week school break? Would the time be better utilized with a “Catch-Up Week” in-school and focused exclusively on closing the ‘COVID Slide’ learning gap?

EdSpendingFraser2021

Some things in education return, year after year, like clockwork. So the dawn of 2021 produced the latest iteration of the Fraser Institute’s perennial report on “Education Spending in Public Schools in Canada. Everyone in Canadian K-12 education attuned to public policy, from coast-to-coast, knows what to expect as regular fare from one of our most conservative, cost-conscious think-tanks.

Public spending, so the narrative goes, is invariably excessive, wasteful, and spread around without much focus on meeting targeted needs. Spending more on public education does not produce better student results and, in the case of the Maritimes, spending rises while student enrolments have declined over the past five years. Those regular monitoring reports also come complete with supporting statistics –in the form of data, bar graphs, and tables.

Flipping through Fraser Institute reports, you can almost hear provincial education ministers, superintendents, and educators muttering something to themselves: “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” That’s a rather snide comment about the persuasive power of statistics, and particularly the kind used to mount or defend weak claims and arguments. While often attributed to former British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-1881), the phrase originated much earlier and only came into popular usage from the 1890s onward.

That was the phrase that first popped into my mind when reading the recent Atlantic Canadian spinoff from the Fraser Institute report for 2021. “Spending on public schools in Maritime Canada on the rise, despite largest declines in enrolment nationwide.” So read the Nova Scotia media release produced by Tegan Hill and Alex Whelan. What, one might wonder, is new about that pattern?

A year ago, the Fraser Institute 2020 report on Education Spending was mostly a yawn because it did beat the same old drum. Spending on public schools was up by 9.2 per cent per student from 2012-13 to 2016-17, a five-year period, and student numbers had dipped a little, by from 2 to 3 per cent in the Maritime provinces. Looking closer at the numbers, however, those increases averaged 1.8 per cent a year overall, and, at most 2.4 per cent a year in Nova Scotia. Throughout the period, it might be added, Nova Scotia consistently ranked 7th among the provinces in per-student spending, reported at $13,135 per student in the final year, 2016-17. Student enrolment in N.S., over the final year, actually began to edge upward to 118,566, province-wide.

The most recent Fraser Institute report actually did say something new and that may get lost in the whole debate, waged – for the most part—by ideologues holding fast to fixed positions. Something began to happen in 2017-18 that changed the trajectory of education spending in Nova Scotia and, to a lesser extent, in New Brunswick.

EdSpendingFraserNS2021

Total spending on Nova Scotia public schools, the 2021 Fraser Institute Report found, increased from 2013-14 to-2017-18 by 19.0 per cent to $1.7 billion, an increase of $279 million. Student enrolment did drop slightly over the five years by 1.7 per cent, but that was not the big story. Instead of ranking 7th among the provinces in education spending per student, it now ranked fourth at $14,726 per student. That’s well above the national average of $13,798 in 2017-18.

More was being spent on Nova Scotia public education and student performance, measured on international, national, and provincial tests, has plateaued or slightly declined, like many other provinces. It’s difficult to be definitive because, since 2015-16, provincial tests have routinely been reformatted, postponed or cancelled altogether, making it difficult to reliably track student results. That’s a recurring pattern and one that renders problematic the usual claims of declining standards.

What’s really new in Nova Scotia is the recent cost drivers for education spending. Two major program initiatives with infrastructure costs, Inclusive Education ($15-million per year since 2017-18), and Pre-Primary Program expansion/completion (2016-17 onward), are factors and produce recurring expenditures, mainly in the form of new education sector jobs. From 2017-18 onward, some 449 new positions have been added in K-12 education.

Few question the wisdom of moving forward with Inclusive Education for learning challenged students and universal Junior Primary for 4-year-olds, and those cost pale in significance when considering the real cost drivers in the extraordinarily high recent Nova Scotia education spending increases, all in the pension, benefits, and contract services domains.

Human resources costs represent the largest share of total education expenses, but under the public sector wage restraints, salaries and wages remained at or below the cost-of-living. Supply and services costs, including contracted work, reached $394 million in 2017-18, representing 22,9 per cent of all expenditures. Together, the employer share of pensions and fringe benefits totaled $324 million, up significantly over the previous five years.

Pension and benefits costs incurred by the K-12 system are running well ahead of all other expenditures, averaging more than 10 per cent increases per year. Carrying a monumental provincial liability, defined benefit education pensions cost $91 million to sustain in 2017-18 (representing 5.9 per cent of all spending) and addressing the problem continually gets deferred by the government and the education unions. Back in 2017-18, employee fringe benefits, including retirement allowances, were 13.5 per cent of all expenditures, double the national average, and up 31 per cent over five years.

Capital spending in K-12 education is hard to track because so much of the procurement and spending is financed over long-term financing arrangements. Some provinces simply report the annual costs paid in principal and interest on long-term contracts, disclosing only the annual carrying costs to the system. In the case of Nova Scotia, the provincial budget for 2020-21 will absorb $265.6 million in costs for capital projects. The deferred financing will cover the cost of renovating 16 schools and for the purchase of 16 Public-Private Partnership schools from developers at the conclusion of 30-year lease agreements.

Conservative business and public policy tanks are prone to “cry wolf” when wading into the regular waves of government spending, particularly in K-12 education. It would be tempting to dismiss the Fraser Institute’s 2021 Education Spending report on similar grounds. That would be a mistake, given the recent surge on Nova Scotia education spending, commencing before we were all hit with the pandemic.

Why are education policy reports from business-oriented think-tanks like the Fraser Institute routinely ignored or brushed aside in Canadian K-12 education? Why does so much education reporting and analysis focus almost exclusively on trumpeting new programs proposed to meet every conceivable need and boasting of dozens of new hires? Do human resource costs in K-12 education escape critical scrutiny? Who’s monitoring and overseeing rising human resource costs, particularly pensions and benefits? Should such dollars be focused more on meeting student needs in the classroom?

Parents, students and educators are beginning to confront the hidden costs of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canadian K-12 education.  The initial school shutdown from March to June 2020 precipitated a prolonged period of improvised and spotty ‘home learning,’ followed by further experiments in hybrid blended learning, compounded by extended holiday breaks carrying on into 2021.  All of this will have profound implications for student learning and generate new priorities for the ‘Great Reset’ in 2021.

What’s gradually emerging, from U.S. state to state, Canadian province to province, is a clearer picture of the “COVID-19 slide” setting back learning for all students, but particularly for those from disadvantaged, racialized and marginal communities. Postponing provincial assessments simply delays the time of reckoning.

Looking ahead, it’s time to actually confront the profound impact of the COVID-19 onslaught on the ‘pandemic generation’ of students and educators scrambling to adjust to unexpected ‘pivots’ from one instructional mode to another, amounting ting to ‘on-again’ ‘off-again’ regular classroom instruction.

Signs of the COVID-19 slide are beginning to emerge as student impact studies gradually surface, albeit mostly in U.S. states rather than here in Canada. Early on, an April 2020 North West Education Association (NWEA) study rang the alarm bell with some outsized statistical projections of potential learning loss. A McKinsey & Company research summary published in December 2020 provided more reliable estimates of the total potential learning loss to the end of the school year in June 2021.

While the initial worst-case NWEA forecast scenarios have been averted, the cumulative learning loss could still be substantial, especially in mathematics, with students, on average, likely to lose 5 to 9 months of learning by year’s end. Among American black students, the learning loss in mathematics averages 6 months to a year. “While all students are suffering,” the McKinsey & Company researchers claim,” those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.”

Comparable Canadian research on learning loss is hard to find and national media coverage, echoing education faculty research agendas, tends to focus more on the impact on student well-being than on evidence of learning loss. One CBC Radio podcast, posted in November 2020 and billed as COVID Slide’s Impact on Kids Learning,” presented some evidence of the problem, then defaulted to standard pre-pandemic responses, dismissing learning loss concerns and instead focusing on children’s anxieties, mindfulness exercises, and reducing stress through broader and ‘softer’ student assessments.   

Two promising Alberta research studies, cited in passing in the CBC Radio podcast, should not be overlooked. Conducted by University of Alberta educational psychology professor George Georgiou, those studies demonstrate that young readers are lagging behind the learning curve in the wake of the pandemic. 

The first study of changes in literacy test scores, comparing September 2020 results on reading accuracy, fluency and comprehension and with the previous three years,  Student in Grades 2 and 3 performed consistently worse across the three measures and, on average, performed between 6 to 8 months below their grade level.

Professor Georgiou’s second study, funded by Alberta Education, followed 1,000 Grade 1 students on multiple reading tasks from September 2019 until February of that year. He used those results to identify students at-risk and then tested them again in September 2020. Just 85 of 409 children, or roughly 20 per cent, were reading at an average level. Some 60 per cent of the children scored lower in September than in January of 2020, before the pandemic.

School shutdowns and the default to online learning have contributed to the problem. Effective early reading instruction requires face-to-face interventions, preferably with literacy specialists, and that was missing during home learning. No one was prepared for the abrupt shift from in-person to online learning, nor were most elementary teachers skilled enough to implement alternative digital learning programs. 

International research corroborates the early American and Alberta findings and demonstrates conclusively that school closures contributed to an actual COVID slide. In Belgium, where schools closed for 3 months in 2020, learning losses were identified in the final year of Primary School in both mathematics and the Dutch language, particularly in schools with  disadvantaged student populations.

A Baseline Writing assessment for Year 7 pupils in the United Kingdom, where schools were shuttered for 2 months, revealed that students had actually gone backwards. The mean score for Year 7 pupils in November 2020 was roughly equivalent to the Year 5 standard in November 2019. The Year 7 cohort, according to UK writing expert Daisy Christodoulou, were 22 months below their expected level of competency in writing.

Setting new priorities will be critical in the COVID-19 education reset and in preparing for the 2021-22 school year. Shoring up the educational foundations in mathematics and reading will be critical in countering the COVID slide and completing the transition to a technology-enabled system is now a matter of urgent necessity. Some exciting innovations can wait when the shaken system requires stabilizers, socio-economic disparities grow, and students need help to re-engage and ‘catch-up’ in post-pandemic learning.    

What’s standing in the way of addressing the COVID-19 Slide in Student Learning? Why is most of the serious research into COVID “Learning Loss” coming from American education authorities, policy think-tanks, and independent research organizations? If provincial testing is suspended in 2020-21, how will we ever know the impact of the repeated school disruptions? What’s standing in the way of tackling the problem and embarking upon ‘learning recovery’ plans?

Effective school councils, at their best, truly engage parents and give them a meaningful voice in shaping school-level policy affecting students. Far too many of them devolve into ‘window dressing’ and instead expose the limits of parent involvement. When schools shut down in March 2020, local parent consultation committees were rendered almost invisible and sidelined in many school districts. Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s time to take stock of that impact with a provincial case study of the current state of local school-level parent engagement.

A recent CBC News Nova Scotia investigation by Brittany Wentzell provided penetrating insights into the state of School Advisory Councils (SACs) in Nova Scotia, a middling Canadian province often seen as typifying the national mean. If Nova Scotia is at all representative, the grassroots level of the P-12 education system has been reduced to either empty shells or gone missing during the pandemic. That unsettling CBC News investigation also suggests it’s time to look seriously at proposed governance reforms and sound, implementable policy alternatives to rectify the problem.


Functioning SACs are actually getting harder and harder to find in Nova Scotia. Out of 333 N. S. school websites examined by Wentzell between November 19 and 23, 2020, only one-out-of-four had posted online any recent meeting agendas, minutes, or meeting dates. A majority of school websites had blank or outdated sections on school councils.


Public and parent inquiries are routed to school principals. School administrators jealously guard the identities of SAC members, citing privacy concerns. It’s become next-to-impossible to find out who’s on your local SAC, let alone bring any local concerns forward. The same critical flaws exist at the provincial level with the nearly invisible Provincial Advisory Council on Education (PACE).


The promise of “enhanced school councils,” first articulated in Dr. Avis Glaze’s January 2018 report, Raise the Bar, has not materialized in any way, shape or form. If anything, school advisory councils are weaker and less effective now than before the province’s elected school boards were eliminated nearly three years ago. Vocal critics of the abolition of Nova Scotia’s elected English school boards three years ago were so absorbed in trying to save the existing system, that most failed to recognize a bigger threat to local democratic voice, the potential for even further weakening of local educational participation and input into decision-making.


School advisory councils first arose in the 1980s in response to two main public pressures: rising concerns about the responsiveness of larger and more complex school district bureaucracies and growing community demands for greater parental involvement in schools. The first Canadian school councils were established under a 1989 B.C. School Act reform which directed that province’s 75 school districts to form a parents’ advisory council in each school to advise “the local board of school trustees, the principal, and staff, on any matter relating to the school.” Most provincial school council initiatives, including that of Nova Scotia, originated between 1992 and 1995. Encouraging local school-level administration to consult with parents did not work, so, province-after-province, from Alberta to Nova Scotia, made school councils mandatory in every school.

The Nova Scotia model was an outgrowth of the proposed structural reforms initiated by Dr. John Savage’s Liberal government in the mid-1990s. Initial plans to decentralize educational decision-making with school-based management (SBM) and governance were abandoned. While the N.S. SBM pilot projects were judged a success, school-level administrators were cool to assuming expanded responsibilities with more accountability to local parents.

School governing councils were effectively neutered. With the exception of Quebec, such bodies across Canada were all consigned to an “advisory role” so as to contain and limit their influence on the shaping of school, board or provincial policy or practice.


School Advisory Councils in Nova Scotia remained almost unchanged from 1996 onwards. Although they were supposed to be mandatory, not every school had one and many were competing for parent loyalties with the longer-established holdover school branches of the N.S. Home and School Association. Like their Ontario counterparts, many SAC’s got into school fundraising and strayed from an explicit policy advisory role.


School boards consolidated and retrenched, and superintendents gradually expanded their authority over not only elected boards, but the whole P-12 school system. In the 2014 report, Disrupting the Status Quo, the Myra Freeman commission found half of Nova Scotians dissatisfied with school system performance and saw the potential for improved governance with “less duplication of services” and “more openness” to working across boundaries inside and outside the system. The Nova Scotia School Boards Association (NSSBA) and its member boards operated in a peculiar educational bubble. When the decision to dissolve all seven English school boards was announced, it hit the leading members of NSSBA and most regional board chairs like a bolt out of the blue.

The Stephen McNeil government, acting upon Glaze’s 2018 report, abolished the English boards and promised a “more coherent and responsive” school system with “enhanced school councils.” Three public accountability initiatives proposed by Glaze were shelved: an independent student assessment agency; a self-governing college of educators; and an education ombudsperson for students and parents.


Education Minister Zach Churchill brushed aside my March 2018 AIMS report, Re-Engineering Education, calling for “enhanced school councils” with a three-year development plan to establish effective and more meaningful a new model of school-community-based education governance. A comparison chart of school-level governance models was provided utilizing World Bank decentralized governance research which identified some 28 specific powers that could be delegated to establish newly-constituted “self-governing schools.”


Instead of enhancing school advisory councils, Churchill and his Education Department have actually weakened the grassroots education bodies. Eleven of the twenty-eight possible roles/responsibilities were enshrined in the 2017 Guide for School Advisory Councils, and the latest iteration, issued in 2019, actually removes some of the previous roles and responsibilities.


The new N.S. SAC guide provides a mandate that is much fuzzier and far more limited in its scope. Completely missing under the new mandate are: advise on the criteria for principal selection, school discipline, and needed school repairs; monitor and report on class sizes; review the annual School Calendar and the annual School Improvement Plan; serve on School Review (School Options) and Site Selection committees; and provide feedback on the School Annual Report to the community.


The cure for Nova Scotia’s democratic and accountability deficit is actually worse than the original disease diagnosed by Dr. Glaze– inflexible, muddled-up, increasingly distant, and unresponsive elected regional boards. It’s hard to see how enfeebling school councils serves the interests of local parents, teachers, employers, or the engaged public. Whether Nova Scotia is indicative of trends province-to-province is a matter requiring further study and investigation. What the case study does reveal is that allowing school councils to atrophy only brings us one step closer to ‘accountability-free’ education.

What impact has the great COVID-19 pandemic disruption had on local school-level democratic governance? How representative is the situation in Nova Scotia? Why did public engagement with parents fall by the wayside during the first phase of the pandemic? Would schools have been better prepared to weather the pandemic if they had stronger school-teacher-parent relations? Is the time ripe for establishing school-based governance and management?

Flattening the curve of the pandemic is a long slog, but a few lessons are being learned, particularly in the K-12 education domain. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, pandemic emergency response plans embraced a singular education strategy – close all K-12 schools and default to hastily-assembled and largely-untested “home learning” programs.

Following public health directives, close to five million Canadian K-12 students and 451,400 teachers were left scrambling to master unfamiliar technology, slap together learning packages, and muddle-through until the end of the 2019-20 school year. The school year mostly petered-out, ending two-weeks earlier than ever before. Without reliable student tracking or achievement data, assessing the real impact is guesswork. Provincial systems and school districts did their best under stressful conditions. In Canada’s largest school district, the Toronto District School Board, it was aptly described as an “unmitigated disaster.” Few students, parents, teachers, or child psychologists would ever like to see that experience repeated again.

Nine months into the pandemic, public health authorities, ministries of education, and and school system superintendents are singing a different tune: keeping students in school is the first priority as we prepare to ride-out the second wave of viral infections. Everyone is far more acutely aware of the accumulating academic, human, and social costs of shutting down schools, falling unevenly upon children and teens in the most disadvantaged communities.

Combating the relentless virus and keeping regional economies in tact will not likely be greatly affected through system-wide shutdowns. What is needed is a new arsenal of strategies embracing a “flexible response” doctrine, borrowing a phrase popularized by former U.S. Secretary of State Robert McNamara in the early 1960s. Banishing the devastating pandemic, much like vanquishing the Russian nuclear arms threat, requires a carefully considered set of options and a calibrated range of responses.

With COVID-19 infection rates spiking again, school closures are becoming a distinct possibility, if only as a temporary respite, for shaken-up students, fatigued teachers and bewildered parents. Setting a relatively low infection positivity number, such the 3 per cent figure applied in closing New York City schools, is unwise because, by that standard, all schools will ultimately close at some point this school year.

Some far more effective strategies are coming to the fore:

Isolating Cases and Suspending Exposed Classes
A case-by-case isolation strategy, in provinces and districts with lower transmission rates, has proven reasonably effective, as long as the public health system can sustain contact tracing and isolate children and staff who have COVID-19 exposures. It was working, up until now, in most provinces covered by the Atlantic Bubble. Implementation challenges are compromising its effectiveness in Ontario, where the numbers of infections exceed the capacity for contact tracing.

Short-Time Limited School Closures
Extending school holidays is emerging as the most expedient way of applying an education “circuit breaker.” Starting the Christmas holidays early, as in Quebec and Alberta, and extending the break (as in Manitoba) into January 2021 are the latest “quick fixes” gaining traction from province-to-province right across Canada. It’s much easier to extend school holiday time because that policy response resonates with teachers and education support workers and is more minimally disruptive for working parents. Policy-makers often opt for the path of least resistance.

Dual Track-Student Choice Model
Giving students and families the choice of completing courses in-person or online was implemented in Ontario and it caused an array of unanticipated, disruptive and unpredictable consequences. Students and parents in more affluent school districts in the TDSB chose in-person schooling, while online enrolment was highest in the district’s poorest and most racialized communities. School schedules were constantly changing as students bailed out of in-person classes, generating unexpected demand for online courses. Hundreds of thousands of students in Toronto, Peel and York Region have shifted online, rendering the two-track strategy essentially unsustainable over the longer-term.

Hybrid Blended Learning Model
Moving to a Mixed In-Person and Hybrid Learning Model on a so-called “rotation system” is a response full of implementation bugs. Some Ontario school districts have resorted to dual track delivery models with classes combining in-person and video streamed classes. Since September 2020, New Brunswick has implemented a Hybrid Blended Learning Model with alternating days in all high schools with decidedly mixed results. Curriculum coverage suffers, with loses estimated at up to 30 per cent of learning outcomes, and student participation rates reportedly low during the hybrid off-days in checkerboard the high school schedule.

Defaulting to Virtual Home Learning in Upper Grades
Younger children benefit more from teacher-guided instruction and do not as readily spread the virus, judging from K-6 in-person classes in Denmark and British Columbia. Splitting larger classes in urban or suburban school zones is prohibitively expensive, so school districts resort to shifting everyone to online classes. That has made defaulting to virtual home learning in the upper grades a more practical and more easily implemented option. Online learning has a better track record in Grades 9 to 12 when all students are enrolled and teachers possess the training and resources to use a full repertoire of pedagogies and resources.


The pandemic continues to bedevil our modern bureaucratic school systems that tend to thrive on fixed school schedules, top-down leadership, orderly transitions, systems thinking, and algorithms. Public health pronouncements can, and have already had, unintended adverse effects on our children’s education and well-being. It’s time to apply those lessons.

Closing all schools should probably be the last resort this time around. That’s the consensus among leading British, Canadian and American pediatricians and epidemiologists. Sending kids home should only be considered if and when transmission rates turn schools into vectors and staff infection rates make it impossible to provide a reasonable quality of education.

Nothing is predictable when it comes to the current pandemic. Resurgent rates of infection and community transmission in October and November produced what Science Magazine acknowledged is “a more complex picture” of the very real risks and the need to be flexible and responsive in the face of a rapidly changing, unpredictable public health crisis. While there’s no perfect solution, keeping schools open remains a priority and a “flexible response” strategy will likely be required to ride out the second wave.

Will public health authorities and school systems apply the lessons learned during the first wave of the pandemic? What is the tipping point for moving away from in-person schooling? Which are the most viable alternatives to system-wide shutdowns? Is it a case of responding with flexibility and in response to local or regional pandemic health risks?

Mr. Zero to Hero: Alberta Physics teacher Lynden Dorval, May 2012

Suspending Alberta diploma exams in October and November 2020 is understandable in the midst of a global pandemic, but it will have unintended consequences. Replacing exams with sound, reliable, standards-based and replicable alternative forms of summative assessment is a formidable challenge. Taking a longer-term view, it will most likely only exacerbate the gradual and well-documented slide in the province of Alberta’s graduation standards.

While some students and the parents retained the right to write exams, the die is cast and it may also signal the death knell for final exams in a province once hailed for having Canada’s best education system. Eliminating final exams, as demonstrated in my new book The State of the System, has hidden, longer-term consequences, significantly contributing to the ‘big disconnect’ between rising student attainment (i.e., graduation rates and averages) and stagnating or declining achievement.

Critics of exams contend that formal, time-limited assessments cause stress and can affect student well-being. Such claims are disputed by Canadian teen mental health experts, including Stan Kutcher and Yifeng Wei, as well as cognitive scientists like Erin Maloney who cite evidence-based research demonstrating that tests and exams are examples of the “normal stress” deemed essential to healthy human development.

Sound student evaluation is based upon a mix of assessment strategies, including standardized tests and examinations. Testing remains a critical piece, countering more subjective forms of assessment. UK student assessment expert, Daisy Christodoulou, puts it this way: “Tests are inhuman – and that is what is good about them.”

While teacher-made and evaluated assessments appear, on the surface, to be more gentle and fairer than exams, such assessments tend to be more impressionistic, not always reliable, and can produce outcomes less fair to students. They are also laden with potential biases.

A rather extensive 2015 student assessment literature review, conducted by Professor Rob Coe at Durham University, identifies the typical biases. Compared to standardized tests, teacher assessment tends to exhibit biases against exceptional students, specifically those with special needs, challenging behaviour, language difficulties, or personality types different than their teacher. Teacher-marked evaluations also tend to reinforce stereotypes, such as boys are better at math or racialized students underperform in school.

Grade inflation has been an identified and documented concern in high schools since the 1980s, long before the current pandemic education crisis. Two Canadian sociologists, James Cote and Anton Allahar, authors of Ivory Tower Blues (2007), pinpointed the problem of high school students being “given higher grades for less effort” and expecting the same in Ontario universities. One authoritative study, produced at Durham University in the UK, demonstrated that an ‘A’ grade in 2009 was roughly equivalent to a ‘C’ grade in 1980.

What has happened to Alberta high school graduation standards? Back in 2011, Maclean’s magazine ranked Alberta as Canada’s best system of education based upon the performance of its graduating students. With compulsory provincial exams in place in the core subjects, some 20 per cent of Alberta’s Grade 12 students achieved an ‘A’ average, compared to roughly 40 per cent of students across Ontario high schools.

Grading standards in Alberta were demonstrably more rigorous than those in Ontario and other provinces. The University of Calgary’s Dean of Arts described Ontario high schools as being engaged in “an arms race of ‘A’s.’ A 2011 University of Saskatoon admissions study of 12,000 first-year university students’ grades reported that Alberta high school graduates dropped 6.4 percentage points, compared to as much as 19.6 points for those from other provinces. In 2017-18, a leaked University of Waterloo admissions study revealed that the average Ontario student dropped 16 per cent.

“No fail’ and ‘no zero’ student assessment policies proliferated in the early 2000s and most of the resistance stemmed from secondary school teachers, particularly in Alberta. Senior grade subject teachers in Mathematics and Science were in the forefront of the underground battles over teachers’ autonomy in the classroom. Constraining teachers from assigning “zeros’ for incomplete or missing work proved to be the biggest bone of contention.

It flared up in Alberta in May 2012 when Edmonton physics teacher Lynden Dorval, a thirty-three-year veteran with an unblemished teaching record, was suspended, then fired, for continuing to award zeroes, refusing to comply with a change in school assessment policy. It all came to a head when the school board’s computer-generated reports substituted blanks for zeroes. An Alberta tribunal found that Dorval gave students fair warning, and that his methods worked because he had “the best record in the school and perhaps the province for completion rates.” The previously obscure Alberta Physics teacher went from “zero to hero” when he was exonerated, but it proved to be a small victory on the slippery slope to dumbed-down standards.

Grade inflation seeped into Alberta high schools when that province moved away from weighting exams at 50 per cent (to 30 per cent) of the final subject grade. In June 2016, under the new policy, 96 per cent of Math 30-1 students were awarded a passing grade, compared to 71 per cent of those who took the diploma exam, a gap of 25 percentage points. The same pattern was evident in Nova Scotia up until June 2012 when the province eliminated all Grade 12 provincial exams. Since Nova Scotia moved its provincial exams from Grade 12 to Grade 10, that province’s graduation rates have skyrocketed from 88.6 percent to 92.5 percent in 2014–15

While far from perfect, exams do provide not only a more rigorous form of summative assessment, but a fairly reliable benchmark of how students perform across a provincial system. It is, after all, next-to-impossible to establish comparability or assessment benchmarks to assess the alternatives such as uneven and highly idiosyncratic ‘demonstrations of learning.’

The Alberta system, once rated Canada’s best on the basis of its graduation standards, is gradually losing its edge. Suspending the diploma exams in 2020-21 may turn out to be a temporary blip or stand as further evidence of an abandonment of more rigorous graduation standards.

Why did Alberta lose its undisputed status as Canada’s best education system? How important were final exams in solidifying that province’s graduation standards? What is the connection between final diploma exams and two key performance indicators — grade inflation and graduation rates? Why have the universities remained relatively silent while evidence accumulates testifying to the softening of graduation standards?

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis may be claiming another victim in one of Canada’s leading education provinces – sound, reliable, standards-based and replicable summative student assessment. After thwarting a 2017-18 Learning Province plan to subvert the province’s Grade 3 provincial student assessment and broaden the ‘measures of success,’ the Ontario Doug Ford government and its education authorities appear to be falling into a similar trap.

What’s most unexpected is that the latest lubricant on the slippery slope toward ‘accountability-free’ education may well have been applied in Doug Ford’s Ontario under a government ostensibly committed to ‘back-to-basics’ and ‘measurable standards’ in the K-12 school system.


All K-12 provincial tests, administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) were the first to go, rationalized as a response to the pandemic and its impact upon students, teachers, and families. More recently, Ontario’s education ministry opened the door to cancelling final exams by giving school boards the right to replace exam days with in-class instructional time.


Traditional examinations, the long-established benchmark for assessing student achievement, simply disappeared, for the second assessment cycle in a row, going back to the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak. Major metropolitan school districts, led by the Toronto District School Board, Peel District School Board and their coterminous Catholic boards, jumped in quickly to suspend exams in favour of what were loosely termed “culminating tasks” or “demonstrations of learning.”


Suspending exams was hailed in the Toronto Star news report as ‘a rare bright spot” for Ontario high school students. Elsewhere the decision to eliminate exams, once again, elicited barely a whimper, even from the universities. “Nobody’s missed standardized tests or final exams,” University of Ottawa professor Andy Hargreaves noted rather gleefully during the October 29-30 Canadian EdTech Summit.


Suspending examinations has hidden and longer-term consequences not only for students and teachers, but for what remains of school-system accountability. What’s most surprising, here in Canada, is that such decisions are rarely evidence-informed or predicated on the existence of viable, proven and sustainable alternatives.


Proposing to substitute culminating projects labelled as “demonstrations of learning” is based upon the fallacious assumption that teacher assessments are better than final exams. Cherry-picking a recent sympathetic research study, such as a May 2019 Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry article highlighting exam stress, may satisfy some, but it is no substitute for serious research into the effectiveness of previous competency-based “culminating activity” experiments.


Sound student evaluation is based upon a mix of assessment strategies, ranging from formative (daily interaction and feedback) assessment to standardized tests and examinations (summative assessment). It is highly desirable to base student assessment upon a suitable combination of reasonably objective testing instruments as well as teacher-driven subjective assessment. UK student assessment expert, Daisy Christodoulou, puts it this way: “Tests are inhuman – and that is what is good about them.”


Teacher-made and evaluated assessments appear, on the surface, to be more gentle and fairer than exams, but such assumptions can be misleading, given the weight of research supporting “level playing field” evaluations. The reality is that teacher assessments tend to be more impressionistic, not always reliable, and can produce outcomes less fair to students.


Eliminating provincial tests and examinations puts too much emphasis on teacher assessment, a form of student evaluation with identified biases. A rather extensive 2015 student assessment literature review, conducted by Professor Rob Coe at the Durham University Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, identifies the typical biases. Compared to standardized tests, teacher assessment tends to exhibit biases against exceptional students, specifically those with special needs, challenging behaviour, language difficulties, or personality types different than their teacher. Teacher-marked evaluations also tend to reinforce stereotypes, such as boys are better at math or racialized students underperform in school.


Replacing final exams with teacher-graded ‘exhibitions’ or ‘demonstrations of learning mastery’ sounds attractive, but is fraught with potential problems, judging for their track record since their inception in the late 1980s. Dreamed up by the North American father of Outcome-Based Education, Dr. William Spady, assessing student competencies based upon ‘demonstrations of learning’ have a checkered history. Grappling with the OBE system and its time-consuming measurement of hundreds of competencies finished it off with classroom teachers.


A more successful version of DOLM (Demonstration of Learning Mastery), developed by Deborah Meier, Theodore Sizer and the Coalition of Essential Schools (1988 -2016), was piloted in small schools with highly-trained teachers. Such exhibitions were far from improvisational but rather “high stakes, standards aligned assessments” which aimed at securing “commitment, engagement and high-level intellectual achievement” and conceived as “a fulcrum for school transformation.” Systemic distrust, aggravated by testing and accountability, Meier conceded, “rendered attempts to create such contexts infertile.”


Constructing summative evaluation models to replace final exams is not easy and it has defeated waves of American assessment reformers. The Kentucky Commonwealth Accountability and Testing System (CATS) 2007-2008, and its predecessor, KRIS (1992-1998) serve as a case in point. Like most of these first generation reforms, the KRIS experiment was widely considered a failure. Its performance-based tools were found to be unreliable, professional development costs too high, and two elements of the program, Mathematics Portfolios and Performance Events, summarily abandoned. Writing portfolios continued under CATS but a 2008 audit revealed wide variations in marking standards and lengthy delays in returning the marked results of open answer questions.


Most of the recent generation of initiatives were sparked by a January 2015 white paper, “Performance Assessments: How State Policy Can Advance Assessments for 21st Century Learning,” produced by two leading American educators, Linda Darling-Hammond and Ace Parsi. Seven American states were granted a waiver under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to experiment with such competency-based assessment alternatives.


Constructing a state model compliant with established national standards in New Hampshire proved to be an insurmountable challenge. While supported by Monty Neill and Fair Test Coalition advocacy forces, New Hampshire’s Performance Assessments for Competency Education (PACE) system ran into significant problems trying to integrate Classroom-Based Evidence (CBE) with state testing criteria and expectations. Establishing evaluation consistency and “comparability” across schools and districts ultimately sunk the experiment. It was anchored in state standards and required external moderation, including re-scoring of classroom-based work. Serving two masters created heavier teacher marking loads and made it unsustainable. Federal funding for such competency-based assessment experiments was cut in December 2019, effectively ending support for that initiative.


Provincial tests and exams exist for a reason and ensure that we do not fly blind into the future.. Replacing final exams with a patchwork solution is not really a wise option this school year. Simply throwing together culminating student activities to replace examinations is, judging from past experiments, most likely a recipe for inconsistency, confusion, and ultimate failure.


Teachers will, as always, do their best and especially so given the current turbulent circumstances. Knowing what we know about student assessment, let’s not pretend that the crisis measures are better than traditional and more rigorous systems that have stood the test of time.

What are the fundamental purposes of summative student assessment? Should provincial tests and final exams be suspended during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic? Where’s the research to support the effectiveness of alternative ‘demonstration of learning’ strategies? Are we now on the slippery slope toward ‘accountability-free’ education?