What I Learned

For those of you not in Alberta, you might not have heard about the new government Student Learning Assessments otherwise known as SLA’s.  This is the pilot year where they rolled them out for all grade 3 students in Alberta and being that I moved to grade three this year, I was able to experience them firsthand.

Now Alberta Education went into these SLA’s with some pretty lofty goals.  They were going to replace the dreaded Provincial Achievement Exams of old with something new and better.   They would…..”better enabling parents and teachers to be aware of a child’s strengths or areas needing improvement. The SLAs are essentially “readiness” assessments that can be used to determine the programming needs for students for the school year, and support more personalized learning.” (Alberta Education Information Bulletin)

However, after being immersed in them for these last 2 weeks, I am now going to share what I have learned.

1. Awareness of Child’s Strengths/Areas of Improvement:  well, being that I spend 5 days a week and almost 8 hours a day with my gang, I already had a pretty good idea of where they were at, both with their strengths and weaknesses.  Funny enough, the first few days, I had a few tell me point blank “I am not really that good at reading, Mrs. D.”  or “I don’t really like writing, it’s hard for me.”  So those that were already walking in the door with challenges, both they and I knew this.  The thing is that they and I spent quite a bit of time those first few weeks building up their confidence in these areas – finding strategies to help them tackle the areas they found hard. I worked hard helping them realize that while it might not be something they were not that great at, I constantly reinforced the idea that they might not be good “yet.” If they and I worked together, maybe we might find ways to help them get better so they could change that statement of “I am not good at reading”  to “I am starting to find strategies to be a better reader.”

So then these SLA’s came with 4 different pieces of assessment that involved a lot of reading and a lot of writing and I saw those students who had started to see themselves in a different light, start to shut down.  The multitude of questions, with these expectations of higher level thinking was something my struggling students found challenging and I could not help them.  I had to say things like “try your best”   and “it’s okay, I know you are trying hard”   So now I am back to square one with some of them and I will have to try to again build up their confidence in themselves after feeling like they have failed. Some of my shy, quiet students who get quite anxious about things actually wrote sentences like “SLA’s I am done with you.” “If I have to write this again, I will freak out.” And yes, this would be even though I did not make a big deal out of all this, I kept saying it was just an experiment to see how we would all do and not to worry.

The other sad thing was that my more bright students, the ones I knew had a lot to offer, even they did not get the point of doing a task multiple times and then evaluating themselves on it again and again. I heard a lot of “didn’t we do this already with the last question?” and “why do I have to do this?”  So yet again, these students did not really show what they are truly capable of because even they thought “what’s the point of all this?” and did what they could to just get done.

2. An Informative, Reflective Piece:  so the point of all these different literacy and numeracy pieces was that this was going to inform and reflect my students to better guide my instruction. As well, I would be able to take these out and use them as something to talk to parents about.  I really look forward to these conversations in that if I show parents some of the numeracy questions with the self reflective pieces, I am sure I will spend more time explaining what the questions were actually asking and validating the point of this type of questioning.  With so many parents already questioning the “new math”  they don’t understand, this is probably not going to help me much.

The reflection I might have, if I was a new teacher to grade 3, is that I better prepare my students better for this type of assessment.  So instead of spending time those first few important weeks building relationships with my students, I need to start start practicing with 7 and 8 year olds how to self assess and/or how to reflect because gosh knows those skills come built in at the beginning of a school year in grade three. (yes that was a bit of sarcasm, my apologies)

3.  My Frustration – my biggest frustration was not the hours of extra work for myself – inputting students onto the system so they could actually do the test, figuring out the pieces and parts to administering these the best way possible, marking and going over each assessment piece. It was not how I put the rest of the school out at times – SLA’s meant no one could use the internet because doing the digital pieces took every bit of wifi bandwidth our school had.  No one could use laptops or computer labs because they were all booked up for us.  Don’t get me started on the amount of trees I killed photocopying everything needed. My biggest frustration was seeing one of my students lay his head down on his desk and cry because he just couldn’t get what the question was asking.  It was seeing one of my girls go “Mrs. D. I just don’t get what to do” and look so confused and disappointed, in me, in herself, in both of us?? It was seeing some of my students take close to 2 hours to get done on the computer because of glitches, freezing, having to shut down and hope it would not make them start from the beginning.

So to the powers that be, I have the following to say about what I learned… I honestly think this could have been done so much better.  I am not sure why you couldn’t trust that I am a professional, that I am able to find and use assessment pieces that will truly reflect my students’ abilities.  But I guess, like my students, I have areas of improvement too….

13 thoughts on “What I Learned

  1. John Scammell

    I spent Friday with some teachers who were grading theirs. I heard many of the same concerns that you express here. I have some of my own.

    The “reflecting” after every single thing in the math one is redundant, and the way it is assessed is questionable.

    I love performance assessment tasks, and despite the title on the top of these SLA’s, I don’t think they qualify as performance tasks.

    The exemplars provided are inconsistent and hard to use.

    My biggest fear, though, is that the roll out has been so challenging for teachers that they will justifiably express their concerns to Alberta Education, who will listen and respond by eliminating the well-intentioned but poorly executed performance component. Then we’ll be left with the machine scored part, which will look an awful lot like a PAT with a different name.

    1. catherined2014 Post author

      This was the point I was trying to get across was that this could have been done so much better. I question whether the digital piece could truly tell me where my students are struggling – is it their decoding skills, is it their comprehension skills. As for the performance piece, it didn’t need to have so many pieces and self assessments. It could have stood on its own with much fewer parts.

  2. Joe Bower (@joe_bower)

    Catherine, this is a very important first look at how real classroom teachers are experiencing the Alberta Government’s new Student Learner Assessments (SLAs)

    I have a couple thoughts that you inspired:

    Why do governments mistrust teachers so much that they are willing to:

    1. Spend millions of dollars on tests that turn children off of school? Essentially, these kinds of government tests ask kids to show what they learn in ways they hate.

    2. Divert the school’s already limited and starved time, effort and resources towards more bureaucracy

    3. Mandate teachers to complete these assessments that tell them nothing they don’t already know about their students.

    Thanks for sharing this! May I cross-post it on my own blog?


    1. catherined2014 Post author

      Thank you so much for your words Joe. It meant a lot that you understood where I was coming from. I was trying to share how this experience was for my students and that is the point of me being a teacher, to do the best I can for my gang of “littles” that I go into the classroom each day to. I hope when it comes time to share our thoughts on the SLA’s that teachers give these examples like I did so the government can do their own reflection and see where these could have been done better.

  3. Paul Pichurski (@paulpichurski)

    This is similar to what I’ve heard from other Gr. 3 teachers in my end of the province. Optimistically, this type of feedback could be used to influence future decisions around SLA’s. Realistically, I don’t think the SLA’s are going to go anywhere, and I believe they are at least one small step in a better direction from the PAT’s.

    1. catherined2014 Post author

      The thing I want those in the power that be is to realize I am not saying no to SLA’s just could it have not been done better. Yes, it is a pilot but they are still using our students when they experiment with these and they do affect them, so I hope that this is taken into account.

  4. Rhonda Jessen

    Thanks for sharing this Catherine. I talked to a lot of teachers about the SLAs before the test, but hadn’t heard their thoughts after their students had taken it. I appreciate you taking the time to share your reflections about the reasons that the test was challenging for your students, and how the test impacted the whole school (as you were using all available wifi and computers).
    I know how in touch you already were with your students strengths and what they need to work on; I wonder what the experience would have been like for a newer teacher, who wasn’t as good at understand their students strengths and abilities early in the school year. Do you think it could have been a useful tool in that type of situation?

    1. catherined2014 Post author

      Thank you so much for the comment and questions, Rhonda. I think for an inexperienced teacher new to teaching and new to grade 3, there are so many different assessments that could be used that would give a clearer picture of their student’s reading ability. Having the student to have a one on one conference and listen to their student read and talk about their reading would be much more helpful I think. As for the SLA’s, I know they are a necessary evil in our educational world, but it could have been much less laborious for our students, especially at the beginning of the year.

  5. Robin Koziak

    Wow. Thank you so much for posting this, I honestly think every grade 3 teacher feels every ounce of this! I hope we never have to deal with them again. Such nonsense.

    1. catherined2014 Post author

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I honestly debated on whether or not I wanted to publish this post, but I truly believe that a blog is a place to reflect how I am feeling about my teaching practices and this is how I felt. I am glad that others are feeling the same way I do.

    2. John Scammell

      I totally understand that sentiment, Robin, but I worry about what we are wishing for. I’d hate to go back to PAT style tests for grade 3’s. Is there any way to improve the SLA model from what was done this year? I worked for AAC last year. We (and by we, I mean mostly other people) took a stab at writing performance tasks similar to the SLA ones. Would these ones work better? I’m confident the rubrics are better, and the tasks don’t have the redundancy of the SLA numeracy task. Here’s the Numeracy one AAC put together: http://www.aac.ab.ca/projects-grants/support-for-student-learning-assessments-sla/aac-early-grade-3-numeracy/

  6. Tracy Duckett

    I searched the AB Ed website to learn the purpose of the SLAs and could only find broad generalities. What I want to know is why the content includes material from the grade three curriculum. I can only conclude the SLAs are, in fact, pre-assessment. In other words, they are based on curriculum to come in grade three rather than assessing just what students have learned from K to grade 2. Otherwise, why would a question on the reading test require an understanding of cm? The AB curriculum only includes nonstandard units of measure before grade three. Does anyone have clarity on this?

  7. catherined2014 Post author

    My grade partners and I noticed these discrepencies as well Tracey, when we went over them during the marking. It is one of things we put on our list that we are keeping of things that concerned us about these SLA’s. We have yet to notice where we can share our thoughts as teachers now that the SLA’s are pretty well completed. Did you notice anything on the dashboard?
    I am hoping that as grade three teachers we speak up and share these areas so that those in the powers that be realize this. Thanks for sharing.


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