At Issue Podcast: Standardized Testing In Ontario—Real Accountability or An Illusion of Success?

Mar 26, 13 At Issue Podcast: Standardized Testing In Ontario—Real Accountability or An Illusion of Success?

Last week, we marked the first year anniversary of voicEd.ca and in celebration of a successful first year we are pleased to announce the start of At Issue, a new podcast initiative designed allow us to hear the voices of those who are helping us to think deeply about current topics, issues and trends affecting Canadian Education. We begin our series by featuring a conversation that voiced.ca had recently with Sébastien Després, a fellow in the 2012/13 Action Canada initiative. An artist, an academic and an award winning educator, Sébastien was part of the Action Canada Task Force that chose to look at the issue of standardized testing in the province of Ontario. But, as you’ll hear, although the group’s report Real Accountability or an Illusion of Success begins with a look at standardized testing, it is really a call for all Canadians to take a much deeper look at the goals of public education. Do our current measures of accountability provide an authentic picture of how our systems of education are progressing towards the broad and compelling vision that we have for our schools, and for our children? How can we make our accountability systems more…well…accountable? How do we make them more intelligent? Who should be involved in the conversation?

Conversations about standardized testing is often polarized and polarizing. But an interesting thing happens when people retreat to their respective positions and turn their back on real conversation: the ground between opposite becomes less populated, affording the opportunity to explore, imagine and envision.

We hope that you find the podcast conversation with Sébastien Després engaging and thought-provoking enough to become involved in the conversation—here at voicEd.ca, in your own blog space, at your local school, around your dinner table, with your local and provincial representatives. Let’s use this issue to explore that space in-between!

Enjoy this conversation—and we’ll look forward to your input and insights. Let us know how you choose to respond, and we’ll feature it here.

About Stephen Hurley


I've been privileged to spend the last 30 years serving the public education system in Ontario. Through opportunities to work at most levels of the system, I have developed a heart for big picture thinking that is grounded in the reality of today's schools. I'm passionate about my own learning and look forward to nurturing that passion through my presence at voicEd.ca

4 Comments

  1. Testing isn’t the problem. Measurement is a good tool to check both the academic “health” of our students and effectiveness of instructional method. The problems arise when the profession looks upon testing as a personal threat instead of useful tool to make sure that the instructional practices are working.

    The transparency is a crucial first step to ensure accountability. The second problem lies with the system itself when there is NO consequence for ignoring results and subsequently for not implementing research-based proven effective instructional methods. The result is that there is no incentive for improvement, only excuses and blame. You can’t have accountability without recourse.

    It all reminds me of the medical profession when germ theory was proposed. Frock-coated (and germ-loaded) doctors scoffed at Pasteur and Lister. They felt it all a personal attack on their professional credibility. That was understandable. But after a time, when patients stared to live when doctors began using sterile practices, they didn’t blame the poverty of the patients, they burned their frock-coats, washed their hands, and sterilized their equipment. Doctors who didn’t certainly wouldn’t attract an patients would they?

    The teaching profession should stop looking at testing in the same way (as if it was a personal threat) and use it as another tool to find what works best for their students. Teachers who want professional growth embrace well-designed testing as a means to fine tune. The focus shouldn’t be on the testing, but it should be on finding improvement.

    Finally, accountability must provide some recourse. If schools continue to underperform, because they fail to implement improvements say, then parents must have a mechanism to get the education their children need. They must be able to have choices.

    • Thanks for the response to this Doretta. There are many points on which I agree, but there are some on which I find myself wanting to push back a little.

      I admit that there are many within the system (and some “on the outside”) that see the current testing protocols as a threat. I think that it’s important, however, to ask, a threat to what. I think that expanding the question would provide some interesting feedback on how educators, students and administrators view, not only the test, but the time leading up to the test, as well as the importance placed on the test by the system. As Sébastien has suggested in his podcast, although the EQAO testing in Ontario doesn’t carry the same set of consequences as some jurisdictions in the U.S., it’s presence over the past couple of decades has changed the face of our schools in so many ways.

      Some of the improvements such as the spotlight that has been shone on, as you say, “research-based proven instructional methods” has been a positive thing (even though I think we need to be cautious of how we look at research in terms of what, exactly, it can prove).

      There are other important aspects of the system, however, that have been affected negatively by the presence of testing.

      I don’t think the desire here is to get rid of the important measures that will provide ongoing feedback about the health of the system and allow us to help students towards the goals that we have for education. But I believe strongly that we need to step back and take a look at whether our current measure(s) are doing the work that we need them to be doing.

      The Action Canada report calls for the necessary review that would ensure that, in Sébastien’s words, our accountability systems are, themselves transparent and accountable. And how could that be a bad thing?

      Thanks for jumping in on this, Doretta. I realize that you were deeply involved with Ontario’s protocol at one time, and your insights are important.

  2. School accountability is elusive, with or without standardized testing.

    Seventeen years ago Ontario public education began to embrace what had been an alien concept – school accountability for student learning and performance results. Since then, Ontario has developed an extensive testing system and it begs the question – “Are Ontario schools any more accountable today?”

    Everyone talks accountability but it’s difficult to find examples of it in practice, even in Ontario. Yet when it comes to school accountability, Ontario is light years ahead of Nova Scotia, Manitoba, and a few other Canadian provinces. And the Ontario system is a whole lot closer to that goal than it was in June of 1997 when I left Ontario for my eventful eight-year Quebec sojourn.

    Twenty years ago the Ontario educational world was far different that it is today. Writing in 1993, Jennifer Lewington and Graham Orpwood published Overdue Assignment and virtually lifted the veil on the K-12 public system. Education, they wrote, was a virtual “Fortress” – an incredibly closed system –and it was “under stress” – from parents, local taxpayers and even students – who expected more from their schools.

    On the educational continuum from “closed and secretive” to “transparent and accountable,” the Ontario public school system was stuck in first gear. Complacency and “happy talk” were the currency of educational discussion. We were literally “flying blind” – and expected to take everything on faith, to blindly support public education, or to be viewed as “trouble-makers.”

    Since then, Ontario’s core educational interests have been thrust into a new, uneasy ‘dance’ with school accountability. With the coming of Mike Harris and the “Common Sense Revolution,” romantic progressivism was in full retreat. We witnessed the introduction of the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), the revival of a sound core academic curriculum, and the return of provincial testing. Little by little, public education became far more transparent, if not more accountable.

    Since 2003, Ontario education has experienced an “orgy” of educational spending. Education cuts have been replaced with lavish new programs aimed at “closing the gap” and promoting social equity through universal program initiatives. In Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario, education costs have skyrocketed by 57% to some $22 billion in 2010.

    It’s high time to ask – What are Ontarians getting for all that investment? And—if we are completely honest – what has all that testing achieved? And finally where do we go from here?

    The centrepiece of reform – the EQAO – would benefit from some critical analysis. So would the Grade 10 Secondary School Literacy Test and plans to embrace the “21st Century Skills” agenda. And if we are looking for a comparator, I would suggest considering Nova Scotia – a provincial system much like Ontario’s fifteen years ago.

    Ontario’s provincial testing regime should be fair game when it comes to public scrutiny. When spending ballooned to $50 million a year, taxpayers had a right to be concerned. Today, the EQAO costs $34 million or $17 per student and its performing just as well. All that proves is that educational watchdog agencies need to be carefully watched themselves.

    The Grade 10 Literacy Test has been a fiasco. The EQAO Office’s own May 2010 report concedes that hundreds of students who failed the 2006 test simply got “lost” and escaped without passing that standard. Consistently, a quarter of all students fall short of acceptable literacy, yet graduation rates have risen from 68% to 79% province-wide.

    Ontario’s EQAO is also flirting with “21st Century Skills” and attempting to incorporate them into the testing regime. Many of those skills are “soft” and difficult to assess. American education critic Jay P. Greene describes them as “21st Century nonsense” and warns that they could be used to subvert standardized testing.

    The Ontario system of school accountability may have weaknesses, but Nova Scotia’s is virtually non-existent. Since 2006, Nova Scotia has been experimenting with PLANS (Program of Learning Assessment for Nova Scotia). One look at the NS Education website and you can see what it really means. The test results of every assessment are dutifully posted, with little or no comment. It’s clearly “transparency only” and makes a mockery of true accountability. Nothing is aggregated, not is anything ranked, except the eight school boards.

    All is not doom and gloom there are glimmers of hope and potential. Three “lighthouse projects” provide cause for optimism in the years ahead:

    The Alberta Education model provides a viable option for school choice and system-wide reform. SQE’s Sunshine on Schools is a fine step toward fuller disclosure for Ontario school boards and is a potentially powerful tool promoting more accountability.

    System-wide testing alone is not the answer. Introducing more school choice would help to encourage more innovation and alternative approaches to the “one-size-fits all” public system. Build upon initiatives like SQE’s Sunshine on Schools – pushing harder for accountability for shortfalls in school board performance and seeking to turnaround schools showing chronic under-performance. And, above all, “put students first” in all of our reform initiatives and projects.

    “Transparency,” Doretta Wilson has said, “is just the first step on the road to accountability.” Putting students first will allow us to refocus our priorities. Standardized testing should continue to play a role, but as only one of the strategies. The 21st century reform agenda should focus on significantly improving student learning, tackling teacher quality, and supporting the most vulnerable in our system.

  3. John Myers /

    As a literacy and assessment “expert” I testified in the case of the parent suing the Ontario government about the fairness of the Literacy Test (OSSLT). I pointed out then and the podcast repeat the point, that since the test results are returned too late for any corrective action can be taken on the basis of feedback from the results, their benefit for individual learners is zero. They merely serve as an “audit” and an incomplete one at that. If the OSSLT were administered in September then you would have at least half a year to work on the weaknesses revealed for both schools as a whole and for individual students. Even test assessment experts point this out (Linn, Davies, Earl, Popham, Wiliam, Black, Guskey, Hattie, etc.).

    This is too bad since many aspects of the OSSLT are useful and important for students to master.

    There is also the issue of grade placement for EQAO tests in literacy and numeracy. That is for another post.

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