by Peter C. Moffatt, retired Director of Education, Grand Erie District School Board, and Education Consultant; and Michael Kozlow, Director of Data and Support Services, EQAO
Students’ background and demographic variables, such as family income, mobility and parental education, are some of the components that define a school’s demographic context and are what make the school unique. While a school cannot alter its demographic context, it can certainly learn valuable lessons from it.
For the past four years, we have both worked to help educators across Ontario understand how demographic variables can help them better define a school’s context and how this insight can assist them in their work to improve student achievement.
Currently, EQAO is developing an interactive web-based tool that will enable principals and school staff to link demographic variables with achievement results. Thanks to this new application, which is scheduled to be available in fall 2008, principals and school staff will be able to identify schools with a similar demographic profile to theirs but with different achievement results. EQAO’s goal for this tool is to facilitate connections and conversations about student achievement and strategies to improve student learning.
From an educator’s point of view, student learning can easily be encapsulated by the following formula:
While we should be held accountable for the final two elements of this equation—our beliefs and misconceptions and how we organize our time and resources—there’s little we can do to change what we start with: that is, the demographic context of the school. However, we can learn from it and take appropriate action. As a matter of fact, this deeper understanding can help us look at our schools in a new light, change our perspective and help us better allocate our time and resources.
The benefits of understanding the demographic context of a school community are many. It can help to
In our approach, we have been using two types of data: Statistics Canada Census variables and school results on EQAO tests. Statistics Canada Census data have been chosen for their reliability and the consistency with which they have been collected. Statistics Canada Census variables are the only demographic data that are available for all schools across the province in a systematic format, and they make valid comparisons among schools possible.
The following charts illustrate the correlation between some of the Statistics Canada Census variables, listed above, and the school results from EQAO tests. Each of the following charts indicates a similar trend: the more favourable the demographic variable is (x-axis), the better a school’s results on EQAO tests are likely to be (y-axis).
Chart #1: Average Family Income
This chart shows the strong correlation between high average family income (x-axis) and good school results on EQAO tests (y-axis). It also demonstrates the wide range of achievement levels within all income categories.
Chart #2: Proportion of Parents with Some University Education
This chart shows the strong correlation between a high proportion of parents with some university education (x-axis) and good school results on EQAO tests (y-axis).
A similar but inverse correlation has been found with respect to other demographic variables, such as
In contrast, the proportion of recent immigrants and the mobility rate within schools are two demographic variables that seem to have little impact on students’ performance on EQAO tests.
Chart #3: Sorted by 3 Factors
Overall, if we look at all the eight Statistics Canada Census variables combined (also called “demographic sorter”) and their correlation with school results on EQAO tests, the same trend emerges: demographic indicators do have an impact on schools’ results, as chart 3 combining all factors shows.
It is known that what students bring to school accounts for more than 40% of the variance in their performance on EQAO tests. What we have been trying to do for a few years is to illustrate and quantify this fact, so that these data can become part of our collective dialogue.
Understanding a school’s demographic context can help remove excuses and increase the positive stress when a school is not performing well given its favourable demographics, as chart 4 below illustrates.
Let’s first take an example with schools located on the left hand side of the chart. These are schools from affluent neighbourhoods with positive socio-economic status indicators.
Chart #4: EQAO Primary Results – Sorted by Demographics
On the chart the schools that are located in the green triangle do well compared to the overall percentage of students meeting the provincial standard on EQAO tests—the horizontal line—as they perform above it. However, the slanted line shows that these schools do not perform as well as the many demographically similar schools that are above the slanted line.
These schools in the green triangle are not living up to the expectations one would have for them based on their demographic profile. There’s very little pressure on these schools to improve their results, as they already perform better than the provincial results. Yet these are the kind of schools that, given their advantaged demographic profile, can improve their results relatively quickly if they are nudged a little bit. Here it’s all about increasing positive stress.
On the other hand, understanding a school’s demographic context can also help decrease the negative stress on schools that are doing well on EQAO tests given their disadvantaged demographic profile, as the same chart shows below:
Chart #5: EQAO Primary Results – Sorted by Demographics
Let’s now take an example with schools located at the other end of the chart, on the right hand side. These are schools from disadvantaged neighbourhoods with less favourable socio-economic status indicators.
On the chart, the schools in the yellow triangle perform below the overall percentage of students meeting the provincial standard on EQAO tests–the horizontal line. However, these schools do quite well relative to many demographically similar schools (those below the slanted line.)
We think these schools should be celebrated. While their results are below the provincial results, they are doing quite well relative to many demographically similar schools. This shows that, considering their demographic background, these schools are making the right efforts. By celebrating these schools and removing negative stress, we encourage them to keep up the good work so that they can eventually improve further.
The question school staff should ask themselves when they do this type of analysis is: “If we think we are doing okay, how are we doing compared to the other schools who are in the same range of demographics?” There may be schools with whom these staff members can talk to find ways to improve student achievement.
EQAO is currently developing an interactive web-based tool that will make Statistics Canada Census data and other EQAO data available to schools and school boards during its test-result reporting phase.
With this innovative tool, principals and school staff will be able to examine their achievement results in relation to achievement results obtained by other schools enrolling students with similar demographic backgrounds. It will enable them to evaluate how instructional approaches have contributed to their students’ achievement levels.
The ultimate goal is to encourage conversations about student achievement and strategies to improve student learning, and to facilitate discussions about sharing effective practices, which will strengthen school improvement planning.
The main characteristic of this tool will be its flexibility, which will allow principals and school staff to sort and re-sort the demographic criteria to meet their school’s particular needs and goals. The tool is scheduled to be available to schools in fall 2008.
Doing this type of demographic analysis should not scare anyone. Such analysis should not be used to cultivate status or to collect weapons or excuses. It is just a starting point, a starting point for a constructive conversation. The demographic lens is another valuable tool that will help us all focus better on student learning.
If principals locate demographically similar schools with better achievement results, they may communicate with these schools to identify effective strategies.