Standardization Interrupted: Assessing Ontario Teachers' Recent Job Actions
Teaching to the test robs the student of curricular depth
By Paul Bocking and Peter Brogan
Job actions begun on Monday, May 11 by Ontario elementary and secondary teachers' unions have been cited in the news for their effective prevention of provincially mandated standardized tests in grades 3, 6, and 9. As reported in the Toronto Star, the note to directors of education across the province says that the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) "will not be sending assessment materials at this time to any schools that are experiencing labour action." This includes all elementary schools in the English-language public system and secondary schools in Durham, Peel, and Sudbury, where teachers were on strike until they were forced back to work on May 27. It also includes schools in Ottawa and Halton, where members of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation are not currently carrying out administrative duties, but are continuing to teach and provide extracurriculars. The provincial government has proposed the removal of existing limits on class sizes and a significant limitation on teacher prep time.
Will being unable to take these tests hurt students? Or, as the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) President Sam Hammond suggests, now that teachers don't have to prepare students for (and administer) these tests, perhaps the time they spend in the classroom might be put to better use by unleashing, "a lot of creativity, a lot of imagination, a lot of spontaneous teaching that goes on" when not doing test preparation. The union also contends that the roughly $30 million annual cost of the EQAO tests could be better spent providing services directly to students.
The principle argument from the provincial government in favour of the tests is that the results enable the Ministry of Education to "provide extra direct funding to the schools that are struggling the most," according to Education Minister Liz Sandals. Teachers respond that relevant data on student grades and passing rates are already available to the government from the school boards.
Toronto-based advocacy group Education Action contends that the increased usage of standardized testing in Ontario is unhelpful in understanding how children are learning because of their inherent structural limitations: they show answers, but cannot explain how a student answered a math problem. Literacy tests evaluate reading comprehension skills using non-fiction text passages, but there is little capacity to measure critical thinking or creativity.
As one Toronto high school English teacher told us, "All of this time spent on test prep has meant that we have not had time in the past two years to properly focus on cross-curricular literacy. Our teachers are not available to put energy into collaboration to find ways to promote real literacy gains in all subjects because they give their time to prepping for the test instead."
EQAO tests do provide, however, a simple number that can be used for political purposes, as in the case of the right-wing Fraser Institute think tank, when it assesses the totality of Ontario's education system. Realtors in the GTA also increasingly use these scores to drive up the prices of homes within the catchment areas of supposedly desirable schools.
Standardized testing is also an international phenomenon, yielding the annual headlines of where Ontario students purportedly rank in relation to their test-taking peers in other countries, according to the Program for International Student Assessment of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. They are often accompanied by evocations on the importance of maintaining global competitiveness.
The proliferation of testing has also triggered a backlash. In April, parents in New York State led an opt-out movement that resulted in over 165,000 students (1 in 6 children from grades 3 to 8) not sitting for their annual math and literacy tests, each of which is three hours per day for three days. As these test results hold increasing sway over both school funding and the job security of teachers, parents and students complain that class time has been consumed by test preparation. While Ontario's tests are, at this point, for lower stakes and less arduous, the provincial government's demand in labour negotiations with teachers for more centralized control of diagnostic testing of students could signal an intention to deepen the role of standardized testing.
The same Toronto teacher observes, in reference to negotiations, that "Any effect on standardized testing from strikes will have no lasting impact on the well-being of students when compared with the effect of allowing class sizes to rise and prep time to be reduced."
Paul Bocking is a PhD candidate in Geography at York University, an occasional teacher for the Toronto District School Board, and a staff reporter for Advocate Publications. Peter Brogan is a PhD candidate in Geography at York University and researcher with the Ontario Council of Hospital Unions (OCHU).