Why I somewhat agree with ETFO’s negative position on standardized testing

Pencil on school test. Click for Peter Greene's article on Huff Post.

Pencil on school test. Click for Peter Greene’s article on Huff Post.

Who benefits the most from standardized testing? Certainly, in Ontario, the EQAO agency which conducts the testing benefits to the tune of millions and millions of taxpayer dollars a year. Another beneficiary is the Fraser Institute that provides annual “reports” on how schools rank. As well, some schools and municipalities benefit when schools in their areas have averages that are higher than the norm — resulting in some parents actually relocating to those communities.

However, contrary to the Fraser Institute’s “key academic indicators of school performance” (on page 5 in the above link), their reports are empty of specifics. Here, for example is what some of those so-called indicators look like.

1. average level of achievement on the grade- 3 EQAO assessment in reading
2. average level of achievement on the grade- 3 EQAO assessment in writing; and
3. average level of achievement on the grade- 3 EQAO assessment in mathematics.

Now, exactly where are the “academic” or “learning objectives” in the indicators? Do the test results indicate, for example, that students were able to identify words in text — which is the first “fluency” phase of reading? Or, in terms of comprehension, do the test results prove that students in Grade 3 were able to identify the main idea in a paragraph? Or, in the average level of achievement in math, were the Grade 3’s able to add and subtract in three columns?

In other words, while the Fraser Institute’s Report indicates there are four standards used by EQAO (e.g., levels one to four), their indicators actually indicate nothing.

There is so much more to a school than cold, static, standardized test results. There are academic subjects such as social studies, history and science. There is also phys ed and extra-curricular activities, such as chess clubs, bands, art clubs, basketball, volleyball and baseball. In all those instances, children are learning new things, as well as how to get along with others and how to cope in the world.

Plus, let’s not forget there are opportunities for parents to volunteer and get to know their child’s teachers and what goes on in their child’s school day to day.

I frequently hear non-teachers talking about the entitlement attitude of today’s teachers. That too bothers me and I say so regularly. However, how many parents, in the midst of such complaining, will also tell you that they like and appreciate their own children’s teachers?

In the U.S., under President Obama, teachers have been fired for low standardized test results that measure so little of what students are actually learning. As Peter Greene says in his Huff Post column: “What about identifying schools that need help? Is the data used to help those schools? Not unless by ‘help’ you mean ‘close’ or ‘take over’ or ‘strip of resources so students can go to a charter instead.’ Our [the U.S.] current system does not identify schools for help; it identifies schools for punishment.”

Anyway, check out this video and list of reasons the Ontario elementary teachers union (ETFO) recommends a random sampling approach, as opposed to 100% standardized participation in the various grades affected. It is why I somewhat agree with their complaints about EQAO standardized testing. There really are other methods of evaluation that would be more helpful to parents.

To improve EQAO math scores, ON teachers should include drills

Originally published on February 6th, 2014.

As a former teacher, and later, a learning specialist and teacher-educator, I can confirm that it is acceptable practice when Ontario teachers use problem solving and discovery math approaches.

Yet, something is not quite right, otherwise there would not be a decline in EQAO standardized test results at the Grade 3 and 6 levels.

Some say the “problem” is too much “problem solving” and “discovery math.” I don’t believe that is the case. Rather, I think it is just that something is missing — multiplication table memorization and old fashioned basic skills drills.

First, however, I would like to clarify why blanket reform of how math is taught in Ontario is not necessary. Discovery math has been around for a very long time. It simply means a child is provided with a math related problem and in the solving of that problem, not only build on math skills they already have, but learn new ones through trial and error.

For example:

Back in the late 1970s when I taught Grade 5 math, I taught measurement by discovery. The preamble the students were given was that the classroom had been destroyed (by fire or flood) the night before and everything had to be replaced. They were provided with a sheet of paper that had the prices for all the replacement products. They then had to measure the floor and chalk/bulletin boards to know how much tile/slate/wall board was going to be needed and how much it would cost. By the time they were finished, they had indeed “discovered” everything they needed to know about measurement.

However, that was not the only way we taught. Over and above regular lessons, I had daily oral time tables practice and daily computational written drills.

Now, think about it. Above, I was talking about a measurement discovery exercise that today’s parents (now 40ish) probably experienced because that math curriculum unit was in an Ontario province-wide Junior level ministry document. Yet, when we did that, we not only didn’t yet have personal computers, we didn’t have fax machines or cell phones either. And, that is just over thirty years ago!

So, change and discovery is non-stop as is technological invention. Reform that goes back in time is simply not the right direction we should be moving our children. However, that is not to say, Ontario’s curriculum planners and teachers should not include the kind of standard lessons and drills we did back then within today’s curriculum mix. They should.

That the Ontario Liberal government is going to put $4 million into teaching teachers math skills is rather strange, unless the teachers in the classroom today were never taught the basic skills in the first place. Since it is not that many years ago that I taught prospective teachers, I doubt that very much. Rather, I think it is simply government covering over a problem with a band aid.

The crux of the matter is, then, that for Ontario’s children to improve on EQAO standardized math tests, teachers need to be encouraged and allowed to integrate old fashioned math practices, which as I said above, needs to include the memorization of timetables and basic number facts, into their current problem solving and discovery approaches.

EQAO & issue of cheating re standardized tests

There were allegations that a principal with the Thames Valley District School Board (London, Ontario) unfairly opened an Ontario’s Education & Quality Accountability Office (EQAO) standardized testing package ahead of time so that teachers could prepare students.  To read about the whole issue and the outcome of the investigation, check out Hugo’s blog at The Education Reporter

Now, Hugo does a very good job of explaining the ifs, ands and buts of the allegations, along with providing highlights from the report of an investigation into the incident. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to call what happened “cheating.” Breaking EQAO rules perhaps, but not cheating. I say that carefully because not letting teachers know what a testing package is about is going against everything I have ever learned about how to teach kids — and that is to always review curriculum content and demonstrate skills before a test.   

In my opinion then, this is a power struggle between EQAO and the professionals in the system. You will do as EQAO says or else you will be punished by your school board — maybe even be fired. Isn’t it, in fact, cheating the students when teachers have to completely ignore their pleas and questions during the time they are completing the EQAO tests. Some students, let’s not forget, are only 8 years old and in Grade 3 and don’t yet have abstract reasoning skills.

So, while I agree with the concept of standardized testing, I would recommend that EQAO ease the rules to allow teachers to better prepare their students — which will help reduce the stress for everyone involved. Otherwise, the testing process, in Ontario at least, is not really about finding out how well our children are performing, or how well individual schools are performing in relation to others, but how well they are at test taking.

Which begs the question: Would advance preparation be considered simply “teaching to the test?” And, if so, what would be wrong with that? In my view, nothing, as long as the preparation time was short because, after all is said and done, the validity of the tests would still be there given it is individual children who complete them.  

Something to think about.

CTBS alternative to Ontario’s EQAO standardized tests

Earlier this week, I suggested that, in Ontario at least, there should be a moratorium on EQAO testing. I also suggested that there were alternatives to EQAO. One such alternative is the Canadian Test of Basic Skills. Known simply as CTBS, they have been around an awful lot longer than any EQAO test as I was administering the series every year from 1972 until the mid 1980s — in several subject areas including literacy and math. The good news is that a Google search indicates they are still available from Nelson. Estimates are that the EQAO costs Ontario taxpayers between $50 and $100 million a year. The CTBS would be a fraction of that. So, if it is accountability and value for money people want …..

EQAO needs review, moratorium on standardized testing

Update Thursday, September 23rd: I notice that my friends at Society for Quality Education would disagree with my recommendation for a moratorium on standardized testing until a full review is done on the process. In fact, it is most unfortunate, but what I see at SQE is a knee-jerk reaction against teachers, that if they “cheated” they should be fired.

Yes, I am a former teacher. But, at times I have been very critical on this blog of my fellow professionals. However, in this case, my reaction has more to do with the fact that I am also a former researcher. Stats and rankings can be manipulated and frankly, once the rankings come out, the students are completely forgotten.

If people see the school rankings as a form of public accountability, they have not asked themselves how they show accountability when only two subjects are being tested and those two subjects in a very limited way. In fact, if all we want is a snapshot that shows what children and youth know or don’t know in a very limited time frame, then randomized testing would make more sense.
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