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Canada's Standards, Assessments Offer Lessons, Study Says

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WASHINGTON--Canada's experience with developing and implementing standards and assessments offers lessons for educators and policymakers considering taking such steps in this country, a report by the General Accounting Office concludes.

The report, requested by the House Education and Labor Committee, notes that most Canadian provinces have developed testing systems closely tied to curricular standards, an approach U.S. officials are actively considering and hotly debating.

But it found that, in contrast to proposals in this country for a single assessment system, the Canadian provinces employ two different types of tests that use a variety of measurement strategies: examinations that measure individual students' achievement in particular subjects, and assessments that evaluate school, district, and provincial programs.

While most teachers and the general public appear to support the Canadian systems, officials there are continually revising them, according to Kathleen D. White, a senior evaluator at the G.A.O.'s program-evaluation and methodology division and an author of the study. Unlike in the United States, where states use the same test year after year, the Canadian provinces recreate their assessments and exams each year, she said.

"Perhaps they are as good as the state of the art right now,'' Ms. White said. "Next year, they'll do it again. Everything is under revision.''

Heavy Teacher Involvement

The report by the auditing agency could help influence the current debate in Congress over standards and assessments. The House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education last week approved a bill that would create a federal role in that area. (See story, page 18.)

The report notes that the Canadian experience is instructive for the United States, given the facts that both countries are similar economically and demographically, and that both decentralize education decisions to the provincial or state level.

Five of the 10 provinces have examination programs, and eight have assessment programs, the G.A.O. found.

The report also concluded that, unlike in most U.S. testing programs, the Canadian systems heavily involve teachers in setting standards and in developing and scoring tests.

And, according to the report, that practice has earned high marks for its effects on instruction. For example, it notes, in 1991-92, 500 Alberta teachers helped develop, pilot, and score an English exam for 24,000 students. In contrast, in New York State, 46 teachers were hired to develop each Regents Exam, which are taken by more than a million students.

The G.A.O. noted, however, that there is some evidence that the "high stakes'' exam programs--which determine between 30 percent and 50 percent of students' grades and whose results are given prominent attention in newspapers--have led to some questionable educational practices.

Some schools may have steered "marginal'' students away from exam courses so they would not take the tests, and others are perceived to lavish more attention on such courses, the G.A.O. found.

But it notes that the assessments, which carry fewer consequences for students, militate against such practices.

And, it found, the systems also include numerous safeguards to protect students, such as allowing them to retake exams and accommodating students with disabilities.

The report also found little hard data to prove that the exams and assessments had raised student achievement, but it says that teachers and the general public consider them beneficial.

Copies of the report, "Educational Testing: The Canadian Experience With Standards, Examinations, and Assessments,'' are available free of charge by writing: U.S. General Accounting Office, P.O. Box 6015, Gaithersburg, Md. 20884-6015; (202) 512-6000. Orders may also be placed by fax at (301) 258-4066.

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