ETFO launched its campaign against province wide testing at the Representative Council meeting in February.
Representative Council brings together local presidents and leaders from around the province.
Participants heard from Joel Westheimer, a professor of education at the University of Ottawa, and from Donna Dasko, senior vice-president at Environics Research Group, who presented the findings of surveys commissioned by ETFO and by OTF.
Standards-based testing: An assault on democracy
Joel Westheimer framed the debate about province wide testing in the context of the needs of a democratic nation. He said the question society needs to address is “What are schools for?” It’s a question he believes is rarely taken up. In debates about testing it’s assumed that this question has been answered and that the discussion between those in favour of testing and those opposed to it is about “different ideas of how to get to the same place.”
Westheimer argues that large-scale testing, such as the tests administered by EQAO, are a threat to democracy. They foster an education system where creativity and critical thinking are devalued and students are rewarded for not questioning authority. While this may be appropriate for totalitarian states where there is “one true story, not open to question,” it is a threat to democracy and democratic values, which depend on a citizenry that analyzes, questions, and debates to shape public policy and the political agenda.
He calls the system that emphasizes standardized testing one that ensures “no child is left thinking,” a take-off on the No Child Left Behind policies and programs instituted by the Bush government in the United States.
Westheimer pointed out that schools in all countries, be they democratic or totalitarian, focus on teaching children fundamental skills – reading, writing, and arithmetic. There’s no difference no matter what the political system.
The argument made is that “those against testing don’t care if kids learn anything,” Westheimer said. “I’ve never met a teacher who doesn’t care about students being proficient at functional math, reading, and writing.” This is true of teachers in all countries. However, he argues, education in democratic countries should help prepare students to participate fully in society, to analyze critically, to question.
Province wide testing creates a school system where the time devoted to subjects other than literacy and numeracy is limited. “What’s going on is not just an attack on other subjects but an attack on helping kids to think for themselves and make meaning of the world.” Westheimer said that in a number of jurisdictions students’ critical thinking has been punished. He cited, as one of several examples, the case of a New Mexico teacher who engaged his students in a study of the war in Iraq. Students created posters reflecting their research and their view of American involvement. Later the school principal demanded that those posters that were insufficiently pro-war be taken down.
Westheimer noted that the state of Florida has passed a law essentially outlawing critical thinking in history, mandating the view that the history of the United States is made up of undebatable fact. The narrowing of the curriculum, stripping all that is interesting and focusing on test preparation, makes school uninteresting for students and teachers. “In-depth analysis is diminished.” The hidden curriculum is “how to please authority and pass the test.” Further, Westheimer stated that testing deprofessionalizes teachers, in particular elementary teachers. “Scratch beneath surface arguments” that favour standards-based testing and the message is that “there is a basic distrust of teachers’ ability to be professionals. This is especially true at the elementary level,” Westheimer said. The concept that “your job is basically babysitting, lies right beneath the surface” of the pro-testing arguments.
Teachers and parents agree tests are of little value
Donna Dasko provided an overview of the results of two surveys. In November 2009 Environics Research Group surveyed 1,010 ETFO teacher members. In December 2009 Environics surveyed 1,000 adult Ontarians including 243 parents of school-age children.
Survey of public opinion
- EQAO testing is not considered as relevant as other measures when parents want to find out how their children are doing in school.
- Parents and the public look to EQAO scores last when they are assessing how good a school is.
- EQAO testing is primarily seen as a government tool to assess the education system.
- There is no consensus that EQAO testing has improved the quality of education; half of survey respondents said it has made no difference.
- Few would be upset if EQAO testing were phased out.
Teachers agree but feel more strongly.
- Teachers say EQAO testing has either made no difference to the quality of elementary education in Ontario, or has made it worse since testing began 15 years ago.
- Teachers say testing has not helped parents assess how their children are doing in school.
- Teachers say the money spent on EQAO testing would be better spent in other areas of the education system.
- Most teachers think EQAO testing should be phased out.
The graphics on this page show the results of the two surveys. A full exploration of how members feel about EQAO testing begins on page 10.