Large-Scale Assessment: A Challenge for Teachers Around the World

Vivian McCaffrey

Ontario teachers who are concerned about the adverse effects of large-scale assessments are not alone. Opposition to large-scale testing by teacher organizations and academics is growing around the world. As ETFO continues its efforts to bring about change to Ontario assessment policies, our approach will be informed and inspired by strategies and campaigns adopted by teacher organizations in other countries.


The provincial assessments administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) place Ontario at the centre of the standards-based accountability agenda that dominates education in many industrialized nations. The reliance on standards-based assessment to evaluate student performance took root in England in the 1980s before spreading to North America, Australia, and other industrialized nations. The United States adopted this kind of testing as one of the principal responses to A Nation at Risk, a 1983 report of Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, which was highly critical of student achievement levels, especially in mathematics and science. The intense focus on standards-based testing south of the border ultimately influenced Ontario policy makers: in 1997 the Progressive Conservative government introduced EQAO assessments for elementary students in Ontario.


Teachers understand that student assessment is an integral part of the learning process. However, they are concerned about the extent to which large-scale tests

  • focus exclusively on literacy and numeracy, preventing teachers from providing a balanced program
  • fail to measure more complex skills required for problem solving and innovation
  • lead to “teaching to the test”
  • fail to lead to improved student achievement
  • demotivate students
  • are misused to rank schools.


In many countries around the world, secondary students must pass national exit exams in their core subjects in order to graduate. In most Canadian provinces, final grade 12 provincial exams count for about 30 percent of the student’s final mark. In Ontario, EQAO tests for secondary students are not as high stakes as they are in other jurisdictions. Secondary students must pass the grade 10 literacy test (or a course designed for students unsuccessful on that test). The results of the grade 9 mathematics test can count for up to 30 percent of a student’s final mark.

In the U.S. and Britain, large-scale test results are used to determine graduation and grade promotion. For individual schools, low results can lead to funding cuts or closure. In the U.S., test results can also determine merit pay and promotions for teachers and principals. Large-scale assessment in Ontario has not yet been linked to these types of high-stakes outcomes, although the most recent Progressive Conservative party campaign platform proposed doing so.1 However, Ontario and other Canadian provinces do share one significant high-stakes consequence: schools are ranked according to test results. The Fraser Institute uses provincial test results to rank elementary school “success” in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario.2 The Halifax-based Atlantic Institute issues annual reports ranking schools in the Maritimes, although in most cases it must go through Freedom of Information requests to obtain provincial test results. Manitoba eliminated its grade 3 and 6 assessments a decade ago.

Paul Shaker, dean of the faculty of education at Simon Fraser University, characterizes B.C.’s provincial Foundation Skills Assessment (FSA) tests as high stakes because of ranking. He states that the Fraser Institute rankings give these tests a “far disproportionate weight and a misleading aura of precision.” He concludes that “as the non-educators at the Fraser Institute and the Vancouver Sun forcefully took centre stage in this debate, the FSA began to influence real estate purchases, the migration of children from school to school, public perception of school performance, and parental reaction to testing.”3 In Ontario, we have witnessed similar trends.


Sixty-five countries now participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) “random sample” assessments of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science. PISA tests began in 2000 and operate on three-year cycles. Schools in each country are randomly chosen to participate in each round of PISA testing. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which administers the tests, considers the random sample approach a cost-effective and fair way to measure student achievement levels and to assess system wide strengths in specific subject areas. On the downside, the OECD tests have led to an expansion of national assessments in Europe and elsewhere. The tests, and the related OECD country reports that analyze the results, have also intensified the testing culture around the world, including here in Ontario.

The OECD tests are a growing concern for the international teacher organization Education International. In a recent EI publication, Laura Figazzolo writes: “In fact, what makes PISA different, and more dangerous than the other international comparative surveys in education, is the clear policy orientation led by the principle of increasing school efficiency. This renders it a powerful tool for political influence, as the OECD is able to exert a sort of peer pressure and ‘soft governance’ on national governments, by virtue of its status as an authoritative impartial source of evidence.”4


Some countries, like Norway, Denmark, and Korea, introduced national assessments in elementary grades more recently – in 2004, 2006, and 2008 respectively. Still others, like Finland and the Netherlands, have rejected these tests altogether. Interestingly, Finnish students excel on the PISA tests, thus challenging the claim that large-scale assessment is linked to improved student achievement. Central to student achievement in Finland is the high value placed on teacher training: Primary school teachers have had master’s level degrees since the 1970s.5 Student assessment is decentralized to the school and classroom level. It is based on teacher evaluation, and students participate in self-observation and assessment.6 Finland also has one of the best developed systems of early childhood education. In Britain, nationalist sentiment has contributed to rejection of the testing culture. In 2003 the Scottish Parliament abolished its national tests for students five to 14 years old. Wales established its own education system in 2001 and promptly abolished the tests for seven and 11-year-olds, replacing them with teacher assessment and reporting based on agreed-upon standards.7 In 2008, England cancelled its national exams for 14-year-olds while retaining its assessments for elementary students. This decision followed a parliamentary committee report critical of the country’s testing culture and a series of national exams plagued by administrative problems.8 In the same year, Northern Ireland suspended the assessments students write for acceptance into grammar schools. Here in Canada, the Alberta government may cancel its grade 3 tests after the provincial legislature passed a private member’s motion last March calling for their elimination. The Alberta Teachers’ Association is currently working with the government to develop a diagnostic tool for classroom teachers as an alternative.


Within the last year, British and Australian teacher unions have launched high-profile public campaigns against large-scale assessments. The “league tables” that publish school rankings are a particular target. In Australia, a website that uses league tables allows users to compare schools, and it probably served as the model for Ontario’s School Information Finder. In England, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) are campaigning for the abolition of the elementary-level national tests.

NAHT has called on parents to keep their children home during the test week. A majority of members who voted in an NUT union poll in November 2009 indicated they would be prepared to boycott the tests. St. Paul’s School and Eton, two elite independent schools, are joining the unions and are refusing to release their school results for inclusion in the national league tables. This past January, members of the Australian Education Union (AEU) voted to boycott their national tests if the government did not abandon its plans to publish tests results online.

In Seoul, South Korea, seven primary and middle school teachers were fired last year for giving students a choice about writing the national tests. The firings prompted the president of the Korean Teachers’ and Education Workers Union to go on a hunger strike.
Some American state teacher unions are also campaigning against the effects of large-scale assessments. In the spring of 2007, the United Federation of Teachers (New York affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers) held a series of public forums and released a report calling for fewer tests, an end to tests being the sole determinant for student placement and promotion, and an end to the use of test scores to evaluate teachers. In September 2007, the Texas AFT affiliate distributed “Reclaim Your Classroom Test Watch” cards so teachers could monitor whether an overemphasis on testing was reducing instructional time. More than half of the teachers surveyed reported spending more than 50 percent of their class time on testing.9

In Canada, particularly in the three provinces where the Fraser Institute ranks schools, teacher unions are challenging the testing culture in various ways. In 2008, BCTF voted to support a boycott of the tests, but the action was ruled illegal by the provincial labour board. At their 2009 annual meeting BCTF delegates voted to support a two-year moratorium and supported the establishment of an education sector task force to examine the assessment issue. At the time of writing, BCTF is in the middle of a campaign calling on parents to withdraw their children from this year’s tests.

Ontario teacher unions have been pressing the provincial government for major changes to assessment practices since EQAO tests began. While changes have been made to the tests over time, the federations remain concerned about the underlying negative effects, including the government’s more recent creation and promotion of the School Information Finder.

ETFO has also worked with other federations to gain broader support for changes to provincial assessments. People for Education, an influential parent-based research and advocacy organization, recently endorsed random sample testing, a model similar to that used in the PISA tests. This approach would reduce the amount of attention given to preparing students for tests and bring an end to the Fraser Institute rankings and the School Information Finder. The approach has support among some academics. Promoting an emphasis on “assessment for learning” that uses a range of diagnostic tests and other classroom assessments, Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley conclude that “systemwide accountability … can be achieved through prudent sampling rather than through a profligate and politically controlling census.10

Ontario has experimented with large-scale assessment for over a decade. It’s clearly time for the government to listen to teachers and others who argue that the province should rely less on large-scale assessment to measure student achievement and should invest more trust and resources in classroom-based teacher assessment. ETFO’s ongoing efforts to bring about substantive changes to Ontario’s testing regime will be informed by the strategies and successes of teacher led campaigns in other jurisdictions.

1 Student achievement is a factor for consideration in principals’ performance appraisal.
2 The Fraser Institute also provides rankings for high school results in Quebec and plans to add Yukon to that list.
3Similkameen News Leader, May 29, 2007, educ.sfu.ca/media_room/documents/news- leader.pdf
4 Laura Figazzolo, “PISA: Is testing dangerous?” EI Worlds of Education, no. 29, March 2009, p. 12.
5 Finnish Ministry of Education (2009), TheFinnish Education System and PISA.
6 OECD (2004), “What makes school systems perform?: Seeing school systems through the prism of PISA.”
7 Dianne Butland, Testing Times: Global Trends in Marketisation of Public Education through Accountability Testing, New South Wales Teachers’ Federation, 2008.
8 House of Commons, Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, Third Report to the United Kingdom Parliament, May 2008.
9 Texas AFT news release, September 10, 2007.
10 Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley (2009), The Fourth Way: The Inspiring Future forEducational Change, Thousand Oaks,CA:Corwin, p. 103.