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By Brian L. Desbiens, Chair of EQAO’s Board of Directors
Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin recently completed a five-part series on public education. His observations contribute to the important and ongoing discussion about how public education can do the best by the people it serves. In his article
"Standard tests: More questions than answers,” he focused more on the U.S. and U.K. contexts and, by doing so, missed the opportunity to reflect on what’s actually happening in Ontario. For example, Ontario’s large-scale tests, with the exception of the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, are not high-stakes. Student achievement on EQAO’s provincial tests neither affects students’ marks and promotion to the next grade nor, as he mentioned, determines school funding or educator evaluations. Ontario’s large-scale testing is markedly different in both approach and how information is used. Results of the testing have the sole purpose of providing students, parents, educators and the public with reliable information about achievement in the core areas of reading, writing and math (not science, as was mistakenly reported) to inform strategies that support student learning.
Ontario’s province-wide tests are standards-based, which means that each student’s work is assessed in relation to the expected standard of achievement, rather than in comparison to other students. Since the tests are directly based on the learning expectations in
The Ontario Curriculum—the source of all classroom instruction—the results are consistently used by educators as a key tool in helping assess and guide instructional programs. Of the more than 7200 English-language
Grade 6 teachers EQAO surveyed in 2010, 81% reported using EQAO data to identify how well students are meeting the curriculum expectations. Of the more than 3400 English-language
elementary school principals also surveyed last year, 97% used EQAO data to identify areas of strength and areas for improvement in elementary programs. Parents also value the provincial testing program and believe it contributes to higher quality and accountability in the public education system. In a recent
survey of English-language parents in Ontario, 88% considered the testing program important, with almost two out of three parents (62%) believing it to be very important.
As is unfortunately all too common in discussions about the provincial tests, Mr. Salutin focused on the theory of testing rather than on the importance of the skills actually being measured. EQAO tests assess whether students can understand what they read, clearly communicate their thoughts in writing and use grade-appropriate mathematical knowledge and skills to solve problems. These skills are the foundation for all future success. Monitoring how well these skills are being acquired is helping the education system deliver the best possible learning opportunities to all of its students. Moreover, these skills can and should be reinforced in all subjects—and that’s just what we’ve observed happening all across Ontario. School teams and educators in all subject areas are getting better and better at seamlessly weaving the reinforcement of these key skills into their own engaging lesson plans.
It is not coincidental that this kind of clarity about and focus on core academic expectations has led to meaningful and sustained achievement results in the province. On the very same 2009
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that Mr. Salutin cites, only students from Shanghai had reading results that were higher (statistically) than those of English- and French-language students in Ontario. Of students in the Canadian provinces, Ontario’s were the
only ones whose achievement in reading was statistically higher than the Canadian average. In fact, since the mid-90s Ontario’s students’ reading achievement on multiple national and international assessments has moved from the middle of the pack to among the very best. It’s not surprising then that Ontario was recently singled out for its success by PISA’s organizers in their report
Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education.
The current form of province-wide testing was first introduced in Ontario in the mid 1990s, in part because parents and taxpayers demanded a transparent demonstration of student learning outcomes. That said, one would be hard pressed to find any person or organization in Ontario’s education system, least of all EQAO, suggesting that provincial test scores should be the only—or even the most important—measure of accountability. It’s important to consider a wide range of achievement information to evaluate a student’s learning. By the same token, it’s equally important to consider various accountability measures to evaluate the system’s performance. However, whatever the list of appropriate measures, it is certainly reasonable to include an independent gauge of how well students are actually acquiring the skills they need for success in all areas of learning and in life beyond school as a key element of that evaluation.
Mr. Salutin raised some legitimate issues and concerns about large-scale testing, particularly in terms of its potential misuse and the dangers of overemphasizing its results. Thankfully, Ontario has not fallen into these pitfalls. Rather, provincial testing has played a tremendous role as a catalyst for improving student learning throughout the province. Twenty-eight thousand more Grade 6 students met the provincial standard in reading and writing in 2010 than in 2000. This is a significant outcome, given that we know students who achieve the provincial standard early in their schooling are best positioned for success in the later grades. This success was made possible by the hard work of teachers, school and system administrators and education policy makers—all of whom were supported by reliable student achievement data provided by EQAO’s provincial tests.