The evidence is clear. The pandemic had a significant and substantive impact on the well-being of students of school age in Canada and around the world. A meta-analysis of the impact of social isolation shows that it leads to increased incidence of depression and anxiety in school-aged children – mental health challenges that can persist up to nine years after the occurrence is triggered.

A University of Calgary study focusing on students in Alberta schools shows that COVID-19 stress reactions in the “above clinical cut-off” range rose to 29.9% from 23.5% prior to the pandemic. The percentage of students who self-reported negative affect (feelings like anxiety, worry and sadness) in the “high risk” range increased to 25.2% from 17.3%. Indeed, this study showed that 7 in 10 students were showing significant signs of resilience – 3% were deeply affected by the pandemic and social isolation.

This is not surprising. Prior to the pandemic, according to the Canadian Association for Mental Health, 9% of Ontario high-school students indicate a moderate-to-serious level of psychological distress (symptoms of anxiety and depression). A further 17% indicate a serious level of psychological distress. Some are pushed to their limits – suicide is the second leading cause of death for those aged 15-24 in Canada, with Indigenous youth six times more likely to commit suicide than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

School leaders in Alberta report ongoing challenges with student behaviour and emotional outbursts. Their experience is reinforced by the Alberta Medical Association section President for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Dr. Sterling Sparshu, who said recently: “I’ve never seen so many kids suffering so badly. I’ve never seen so many families in need of hope and I’ve never seen so many colleagues struggling with the degree of burnout they are right now. The system is on the edge of collapse.”

Given these developments, one might expect that governments would be doing all they can to create safe, anxiety-reducing environments for children and young people, especially in schools. Yet Canada is requiring a sample of 15-year-olds to spend most of a full day completing an international standardized test for the OECD known as PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) and some Provinces, like Alberta, have restored Diploma Examinations which all high school students will take before graduation, even though it accounts for just 10% of their graduating grade. Rather than reducing anxiety, these activities will significantly increase anxiety with no direct benefit to the student.

The situation is also made worse by the pursuit of the false narrative of “learning loss” – “a calculation masquerading as a concept – a rather shallow, naïve and ridiculous concept” says John Ewing, President of Math for America writing in Forbes. Learning loss is the loss of gains on test data and the ability to project that data into the future. Students at many grade levels are being tested more frequently to determine the extent of the “loss” and the progress they are making in terms of “making up for the loss” – assessments that would usually be done by a qualified teacher if needed. Alberta invested $30 million in additional support and testing focused on Grades 2 and 3. More testing. More anxiety. More mental health challenges.

We are using tests and assessments to create a school environment that contributes to mental illness rather than combats it. Many of these tests “feed” the assessment industry and produce little value to students and their teachers. PISA is an excellent example. Some 30,000 15-year-old students will sit the PISA test in April and May. The test material is then sent to Paris. Six months later Canada will receive the results. These results are of no value to the students who sat the test or their teachers and have limited value to schools and school districts. Yet the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada sees this anxiety-producing day-long testing sessions as having value.

The decision to proceed with PISA of course needs to be considered within the broader context of the legacy of Jason Kenney’s failed education policies – outlined by Cory Wright-Maley Associate Professor, St. Mary’s University. From the outset, Kenney has been clear that he didn’t meet a test he didn’t like. A key platform in his campaign was to reintroduce the grade 3 PATs.  Even as recently as 2019, Premier Kenney attempted to reverse a 2015 provincial conservative government decision to have provincial diploma exams account for 30% of a student’s final grade, down from 50% and also introduce new math and literacy exams in Grade 1, 2, and 3 to intervene early if students are running into trouble. It was only after public push-back, including parents, was the Premier forced to dial down these failed policies. 

It was no secret that pre-pandemic Alberta students were the most intensely tested kids in the country. In the month ahead as over 2,000 Alberta 15-year-olds in 140 schools are ‘volunteered’ to miss the best part of a school day to write PISA, it is clear nothing will be done to change direction. 

Given the experience of the pandemic and the known mental health challenges students are experiencing, postponing the PISA tests and other low-value testing activities would demonstrate a considered, sensitive understanding of what students and their teachers are really facing: a mental health crisis.