Premier Kathleen Wynne announced at the start of the school year “a sweeping review of how students are assessed in Ontario, including possible changes to EQAO tests“. A month later the focus is starting to shift, as people start to consider how we might make EQAO better.

I’ve written extensively about EQAO in the past including a prediction five years ago that we’d start to back away from standardized testing in Ontario education. Many jurisdictions around the world are reducing testing as a tool in education. Ontario is, predictably, late to start this process.

So what can we do to fix our broken testing system? Here are three ideas:

Randomized Testing

Dr. Joel Westheimer at The University of Ottawa has for years advocated in favour of random sample testing. He asserts that random sample testing will provide statistically relevant results on system effectiveness at a fraction of the current cost and without the system wide focus on testing.

While I have no reason to doubt Dr Westheimer’s assertion there is actually a more credible advocate for random sample testing in  Ontario schools. And that is EQAO.

In addition to being responsible for conducting its own provincial assessments EQAO is also responsible for conducting several national and international assessments such as PISA & TIMMS. Most of these test use random sampling not large-scale testing where every student is tested. TIMMS has an extensive procedure to determine what classrooms to test and so does PISA.

So EQAO regularly conducts random sample testing in the province and shows no hesitation about publicizing the results of those tests.

EQAO knows how to conduct random sample testing and believes that results from random sample testing are valid and provide valuable insight. So why not use it for all EQAO testing? Perhaps because it would be hard to justify EQAO’s current budget if the number of schools tested was radically reduced.

Only Publish School Board Results

EQAO was started with a few main objectives.

  1. To evaluate school quality and effectiveness
  2. To develop and administer tests
  3. To report to the public and the Minister on test results and education quality and effectiveness
  4. To make recommendations on education quality and effectiveness

There is no official requirement to report individual school or student results. So why does EQAO do this?

Publicly sharing school results pits school against school and system against system. In the process test results are entrenched as the metric by which schools can be judged. It also makes possible abuses like The Fraser Institute rankings.

The annual FI rankings are generally decried by the education community. EQAO does not produce or endorse the FI rankings but their position feels a lot like tobacco companies saying it’s not their fault if people choose to smoke. EQAO created the system that allows FI to create rankings and they have the power to change that. They choose not to.

Providing individual student rankings extends the fiction that EQAO results have some sort of assessment value. They don’t. Telling a student, months later, how they did on standardized tests they can’t go back and learn from it has little educational value.

Only board wide EQAO results should be shared publicly along with an overall province wide report. EQAO should protect individual schools by providing that data privately for schools to use as they see fit.

End High Stakes Testing

High stakes tests are simply standardized tests “with important consequences for the test taker”. In Ontario this means the Grade 9 Assessment of Mathematics test and The Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT).

The Grade 9 Assessment of Mathematics can be worth up to 30% of a students final course mark in Grade 9 math.

While the OSSLT result doesn’t count towards a student’s grade, a student cannot graduate without passing the test or an alternative literacy course.

High stakes indeed.

High stakes testing is universally seen as having a number of problems.

Namely:

  1. Leads to a narrowing of the curriculum where teachers only teach what’s on the test using methods dictated by the test.
  2. High stakes testing leads to increased corruption and cheating
  3. High stakes tests are inequitable, affecting a disproportionate number of disadvantaged students.
  4. High stakes tests make a powerful statement about what matters most in our schools. If we tell students that math and language are what matter most the implication is that other subjects. As a result students won’t value the arts, phys ed or other areas of the curriculum in the same way. Is that the message we want to send?

There are lots of other issues with EQAO that need to be resolved, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. It will take some time to repair the damage that the current testing system has done to our schools and our teachers. We should get started right away.