Bruce Rodrigues, Chief Executive Officer, EQAO
In fall 2013, based on an evaluation of EQAO provincial assessment results, trustees at the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board (HWCDSB) formed a special task force to investigate how to improve math achievement in the board. The task force recently came back with a series of recommendations for the board, its schools, its parent community and even the Ministry of Education. Local attention now turns to considering these recommendations and their implementation.
Fittingly, a number of the recommendations emphasize early-grade math programs, the importance of which cannot be overstated. For years now, EQAO has followed and reported on the progress of students as they advance through the grades. These studies have consistently shown that a student’s achievement in the earlier grades is a strong predictor (though not a determinant) of his or her achievement in later grades. In both Hamilton’s public and Catholic school boards, for example, about 90% of the students in the applied math program who didn’t meet the provincial standard on the Grade 9 math assessment last year had also failed to meet the standard on the provincial math test in Grade 6.
EQAO studies have also shown that student attitudes toward math in the early grades need deliberate attention. Far too many elementary school students don’t think they’re good at math or even like the subject. Last year, more than 40% of Grade 3 students and more than 50% of Grade 6 students in both Hamilton’s public and Catholic school boards—and across the province—said they didn’t enjoy math most of the time. Studies show there’s a clear drop in the percentage of students who say they like math between Grades 3 and 6, particularly (and understandably) among students who don’t meet the standard in Grade 6. Intriguingly, even many students who did successfully meet the standard (equivalent to achievement in the B– to B+ range) in Grades 3 and 6 didn’t believe they were good at math or enjoy it.
A strong and persistent relationship between students’ achievement and attitudes about math is evident in EQAO research and, while it’s not possible to claim a cause-and-effect relationship, it’s likely that each reinforces the other. Attention clearly needs to be given to improving mathematics engagement and achievement in elementary school, so that students have a solid foundation for success as they advance in their schooling.
The HWCDSB’s task force also included recommendations related to parent engagement, particularly in cases where students are known to be struggling. Involving parents in productive and appropriate ways is a well-documented hallmark of effective schools. Other EQAO research has pointed to two specific areas where parents can play a particularly supportive role—homework completion and class attendance.
According to a 2012 study, of the students in the Grade 9 academic math course who said they “often” or “always” completed their homework, 88% met the provincial standard. Significantly fewer (77%) of those who said they “seldom” or “never” completed their homework met the standard.
Similarly, students who were absent from mathematics class more often were less likely to meet the provincial standard. Parental efforts that encourage students to complete homework and to regularly attend class have the potential to improve student achievement.
Information is power, and that’s ultimately the purpose and value of EQAO’s provincial assessments. Regrettably, some groups still think of EQAO results as just a number by which to judge a school’s overall quality. That’s like judging your overall health solely by the number on your bathroom scale, which is neither valid nor appropriate. The purpose of the provincial assessments is to provide parents and the public with an objective window into some important aspects of student achievement, while also providing education professionals with valuable information to improve the quality of their programs. The HWCDSB’s task force is one of the many appropriate and inspired uses of EQAO data for system improvement, and these are the kinds of efforts that will improve student achievement in the long run.
Bruce Rodrigues is CEO of the Education Quality and Accountability Office and a former school board Director of Education and secondary school math teacher.