Feature

EQAO In Our Schools: Members Speak out

Johanna Brand

Is EQAO testing a valid indicator of student achievement? Teachers and parents, for the most part, say no. Surveys conducted by Environics Research Group show that

  • neither teachers nor parents feel EQAO scores are the best way to assess student learning
  • teaching to the test is a widespread practice
  • EQAO testing has increased teachers’ workload
  • EQAO testing has narrowed the range of subjects taught.

ASKING TEACHERS AND PARENTS

ETFO commissioned Environics to survey members in November.1 Environics also polled Ontario parents and the public for the Ontario Teachers’ Federation.2 EQAO testing was one of many topics covered in focus groups that Stratcom conducted for the Elementary Teachers of Toronto Local.3

Voice also provided members with opportunities to tell their stories about EQAO testing by asking them to respond to an online survey posted on etfo.ca in December. Members were alerted to the survey in the enewsletter @ETFO/FEEO.4

The picture that emerges from these stories is of teachers overwhelmed by testing and data-gathering requirements, enjoying their work far less than they once did, and sometimes feeling that they are short-changing their students.

WHAT TEACHERS SAID

In a telephone survey Environics asked ETFO members to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements about EQAO testing. Almost all respondents –94 percent – said they spend considerable time preparing students for the EQAO test. Seventy-seven percent said the range of topics taught is narrowed because of the EQAO testing program.

TEACHING TO THE TEST

Anecdotal evidence provided by those who responded to the Voice online survey – whether they approved of EQAO testing or not – underlined the survey finding that teaching to the test is widespread. This practice includes teaching test-taking skills, practicing with old EQAO tests, and reviewing heavily in the months before testing takes place. Here are some teachers’ responses.

  • The first couple of years of testing we would prepare students for the test for a couple weeks in advance. Now that there is pressure from all levels to get the test scores up, we begin practising for the test in March and put a push on in April and May.
  • We are teaching to the test to prevent being singled out by our administrator! We spend a lot of time preparing for the test, every school that I go to does.
  • Every day when you plan, you have to keep EQAO in the back of your mind. There is a lot less time for enrichment activities which may not be curriculum based but are excellent learning experiences. Instead, we have to spend time learning how to answer multiple-choice questions.
  • Classroom activities are always for marks and I teach my students explicitly about levels 1 through 4 and how to achieve level 3 and 4. While students do learn to assess and then improve their work, it does make grade 3s mark obsessed!

A NARROWER FOCUS

Emphasis on EQAO tests means less time is spent on other subject areas, such as science, social studies, art, drama, and physical education.

I went to a [professional learning session] where the teacher was sharing “best practices” after her class did well on the EQAO test. I was wondering how a person could do it all in the time we have for language arts. I asked her if she happened to have a weekly schedule and I noticed that she was teaching language arts for 120 minutes a day! She taught gym for two 30-minute periods/week, science for 30 minutes/week and art or music for 30 minutes. This kind of schedule is not addressing the needs of the whole person.

Here in Halton, I see entire programs grind to a halt in the spring: no science, no social studies. Kids who do not finish sections are not allowed to go to music, gym, etc.

Some noted that administration doesn’t seem to care much about student achievement in areas not tested by EQAO– in some cases explicitly telling teachers to give them less emphasis.

We were informed by our employer that we did not, in fact, need to teach all of the MoE expectations, in favour of focusing on literacy and numeracy to increase EQAO test scores.

Even our bulletin boards are supposed to “reflect our commitment to literacy and numeracy.” I’ve been asked to take down my hallway display of student paintings because they don’t represent our school goals.

SCHOOLS OBSESSED

Many respondents indicated that EQAO testing drives all the student learning and teacher professional learning that goes on in their school.

All classroom activities (even in kindergarten) are geared towards the achievement of higher EQAO scores. It is the “Stanley Cup” that we are trying to win for our school. School growth goals focus on higher achievement in one area each year.

We have meeting after meeting about raising our test scores. I’m out of my classroom so much I ‘m losing teaching time with my class.

We are almost completely “data driven.” We talk about numbers, not children, in meetings with admin and board personnel. EQAO determines school focus for writing and reading (never math!), but the EQAO results come out after each of us has developed our long-range plans for the year.

We feel responsible for the image of the whole school. We became an OFIP [Ontario Focused Intervention Partnership] school because of my class.

STUDENTS’ REACTIONS

Some online respondents noted that many students know the results “don’t count for the report card” and therefore don’t put in much effort. Others reported increased student anxiety, especially if there is parental pressure. Some said young students particularly were fatigued by the end of the week.

You know, we don’t make university students write exams for hours on end, day after day, but we expect eight-year-olds to do it?

EQAO testing can be particularly hard on special needs students.

As a special education teacher, I had a grade 6 boy who was very smart but had a severe learning disability ask me why I told him he could learn when he couldn’t understand the EQAO test. A whole year of confidence building and a lot of learning were severely damaged by EQAO.

Why do we do DI [differentiated instruction] all year and then expect these students to do EQAO at the end of the year?

I had 15 flagged ESL students last year. They went in positive and excited and came out downcast. I can’t even describe for you how devastating this is for me and my students.

DOES EQAO EFFECTIVELY MEASURE LEARNING?

The Environics survey asked members if EQAO testing was useful for informing parents about their child’s progress in school; 61 percent said no.5

Parents also don’t rely on these tests when they want to know how their child is doing in school. In surveying parents, Environics found that “just 5 percent of parents consider EQAO scores the most effective measure for assessing how their children are doing in school.”6 Thirty-nine percent rely on conversations with the teacher and 36 percent observe or talk with their child. Even school report cards don’t hold much relevance for parents, with only 20 percent finding them the most effective measure of their child’s success.

AN INADEQUATE TOOL

Many of those who responded to our online survey noted the inadequacy of EQAO testing in assessing student learning, saying that “EQAO only tests one skill set . . . written communication.”

It’s not healthy to think that one test is a measure of a child’s ability in grade 3. We are being told that assessments need to be varied yet our teaching and our students’ achievement are being measured by one written test.

The focus becomes very individual based because you want the student to rely solely on themselves and be able to perform on the test alone. I don’t believe this is reflective of the real world, or how a classroom should really work.

The tests are particularly problematic for students who have been provided with differentiated instruction throughout the year.

The students must be completely independent (i.e., don’t ask clarification questions; just have me read the instructions) and there isn’t an option for DI on EQAO so they must be able to perform on pen-and-paper tasks.

PARENTS’ REACTIONS

Many of those responding to our online survey said parents don’t seem to care much about the test except to brag about their school’s achievement when scores are high.

Judging from their responses when the results come back, I don’t think they really look at them. It’s four months later and parents and students have moved on.

In all of my 10 to 11 years of administering the test, I have never heard a parent say good things. They talk about how they have to “de-stress” their kids.

Individually, parents don’t put too much emphasis on the value of EQAO. The results become more of an issue in parent groups (e.g., school councils), or if parents are “school-shopping.”

In some areas of Toronto EQAO results are used by real estate agents to promote certain areas ashaving good schools and increase the cost of housing in those areas.

HAS TESTING IMPROVED EDUCATION?

The majority of teachers polled by Environics – 56 percent– said province-wide testing has made no difference in the quality of education in Ontario; 49 percent of parents agreed. Among teachers 19 percent felt the system has improved; 38 percent of parents agreed. However, 18 percent of teachers and 11 percent of parents said the quality of education is worse.

HAS EQAO TESTING IMPROVED TEACHING?

Eighty-eight percent of teachers told Environics that their workload has increased as a result of EQAO. Toronto teachers who took part in focus groups also reported a significant increase in workload: “The volume and difficulty of delivering curriculum is compounded by the pressure to report progress on three report cards throughout the school year and, above all, prepare students for the EQAO.”7 Teachers’ professional lives and experiences have in some cases been radically altered as a result of the emphasis some schools put on EQAO scores. Here’s what we heard.

When I started teaching many years ago it was common to hear laughter coming from classrooms. Now there is little or no laughter. We are presenting material that has little or no relevance to the students themselves. They recognize this and find it unworthy of their focus and attention.

There is way less freedom to teach through different styles, and using activities chosen by the teacher. It is as if there is an attempt to create “clone” teachers who all have to do things the same way.

I really feel like a lot of the time I am failing the kids because my teaching lacks fun and inspiration. The creativity of my teaching has been taken away.

Our job has become little more than describing where students are, with little time left to help them progress.

All teachers [have] to have anchor charts displayed on the same criteria and a so-called “agreed-upon list.” ... Management wants teachers to recognize the differences of children and teach in a variety of ways. Why have they not recognized that teachers also teach and respond in a variety of ways not with “agreed-upon lists”!

The grade 3 teachers are blamed if students don’t do well. Even when a school achieves +85% students at level 3 & 4, we can’t focus on celebrating success, rather we have to push to improve the percentage.

The staff meeting where the results are discussed is very uncomfortable for the grade 3 and 6 teachers. Though EQAO is now referred to as a Primary and Junior assessment, no pressure is put on the other teachers to improve practice.

Notes
1Ontario Elementary Teachers’ Opinions of EQAO Testing, prepared by Environics Research Group for ETFO, November 2009. Environics conducted telephone interviews with 1,010 randomly selected teacher members. The margin of error is +/- 3.1 percentage points 19 times out of 20.
2Ontarians’ Attitudes Toward EQAO Standardized Testing, prepared by Environics Research Group for the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, December2009. For all adults the margin of error is +/- 3.1 percentage points; for parents only, the margin of error is +/- 6.3 points, 19 times out of 20.
3 Voices from the Classroom: Experiences and Perspectives of Elementary Public School Teachers in Toronto, December 2009. Available at ett.ca.
4 ETFO could not control who responded to our online survey: anyone who had access to the enewsletter was able to reply. Their responses are cited for anecdotal purposes.
5Ontario Elementary Teachers’ Opinions of EQAO Testing.
6Ontarians’ Attitudes Toward EQAO Standardized Testing.
7Voices from the Classroom, p. 24.