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The fixation on standardized test scores

Cartoon illustration of a teacher at a chalkboard writing out the equation for The Student Success Formula

There was a great deal of public noise this past summer over the latest round of Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) test scores in math. Most of the attention was focused on the fact that the provincial average for Grade 6 math has dropped by 7 per cent since 2012/2013. An eruption of panic ensued, and fingers pointed in every direction in an attempt to assign blame for this apparently “devastating deficiency” in our education system.

This all started about a decade ago with changes to the math curriculum in Ontario, which shifted focus more toward problem-solving and discovery approaches, and less on rote learning and memorization. Soon, a perceived crisis in Ontario education began to emerge when our students began scoring lower on mathematics standardized tests, as administered both by Ontario’s EQAO and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

First, politicians placed the blame for these low test scores on educators. Money was poured into boosting the math proficiency of teachers, especially at the elementary level, but the curriculum remained largely unchanged. EQAO and PISA scores continued to decline. It looked like it wasn’t the educators after all. Now it was the curriculum’s turn to take the blame.

Throughout this period of panic over low math scores on standardized tests, some questions have simply not been asked, or at least have not become part the public discourse on this apparent crisis. Could the problem be the test itself? Could the problem be the standardized testing model? Do these tests provide a fair assessment of true student achievement?

A modern educator does not base a student’s final course mark on just one test. Ongoing assessment and evaluation, based on professional judgment and knowledge of students’ needs, are integral aspects of the work that teachers and education workers undertake every day. The extraordinary significance that is assigned to standardized test results runs counter to how we educate and evaluate students in the 21st century. Nevertheless, we have real estate companies and conservative think tanks ranking schools and exacerbating socio-economic disparities in communities based solely on EQAO test results. Politicians make sweeping pronouncements and call for actions to improve math scores. But none of them talk about actual student achievement. It’s all about the test scores.

We need to constantly ask what value standardized testing serves to students, schools, educators and communities. Do these tests accomplish anything meaningful beyond dividing communities, disparaging educators, and wasting energy on solutions to problems that may not even exist? We need to ask bluntly if it’s finally time to get rid of EQAO, and to do away with the fantasy that a single set of numbers generated by a standardized test can tell us how proficient our kids are, or act as the basis for sweeping judgments about our education system.

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