The Standardized Test Debate – Is EQAO Good For Education?

Anyone in the education sector would agree that EQAO and other standardized tests are very controversial. It seems that there is a huge number of educators that are completely against the idea of standardized testing and I can understand why. My impression is that most believe standardized testing encourages the educator to “Teach to the Test” rather than teach as they would if there were no big bad test to prepare for.

The Standardized Test Debate - Is EQAO Good for Education?

Is There Really a Difference When Standardized Testing is Involved?

Having experience teaching mathematics in courses with standardized testing as well as courses that do not have a government mandated test, I really don’t believe in the “Teaching to the Test” theory. I’ll admit that I feel more pressure to use every minute of instructional time when standardized testing is involved, whereas a field trip or school assembly during another course wouldn’t bother me as much.

Wait a second. Did I just say that?

I feel less pressure when I lose instructional time during courses that do not have the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) standardized test here in Ontario? Wouldn’t that suggest that I am a better teacher when I have the pressure of the test in the back of my head? Let me rephrase that. Maybe I should have said that I try harder when I’m under the microscope. Wait a second – that sounds bad.

The Teaching to the Test Excuse is Worse

If you think it sounds bad that teachers feel a duty to utilize every spare instructional minute (assuming a spare minute even exists) when a standardized test like EQAO is waiting for them in June, then doesn’t it sound worse when one suggests that schools performing well on standardized tests are simply “Teaching to the Test?” Unless the organization administering a standardized test uses the same types of questions and in the same order each year, it is virtually impossible to accomplish the task of having students essentially memorize the test questions to outperform another class, school or district.

Standardized Test Success = Deep Student Understanding of Expectations

While I can’t be certain whether standardized testing is the most effective way to improve education, I do have an issue with blaming these assessments for turning the classroom environment toxic. If a student performs well on a standardized test, it would suggest to me that this individual has a deep knowledge of curriculum expectations. However if a student performs poorly, this doesn’t necessarily indicate that they do not have an understanding or the educator did not do a good job. These tests are simply a snapshot that should not be (but often are) used as the only indication of how strong or weak a student is performing. Students dedicate hours to playing sports, family members get sick, hamsters die and there are other factors that are much worse that can significantly skew how well a student performs on one assessment.

Don’t Take It Out On The Test

By now I think you can understand where I’m going with this. Standardized testing could be a very effective and powerful assessment tool to improve learning and the education system as a whole. The problem is how we interpret the results.

Why the Ministry and Government Make Such a Big Deal

In 2009-2010 the EQAO annual report stated that the standardized testing expenses were $33 million as reported by ETFO. While this seems like a significant amount of money, we should note that this computes to a cost of approximately $17 per student. When comparing this cost to the cost of the recent math contest my students wrote for $8 each, EQAO seems like a bargain for all of the data and analysis that is made available to educators, school districts and the public. The additional $77 million spent by the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat designing and mandating programs designed to improve test scores is what might scare you a bit.

But should it?

If the end goal is to simply raise test scores, then I would be scared as well. However, I think that using standardized testing like EQAO as an indicator of what strands we as educators need to address is a great way to improve student learning. Remember, when we invest money in the improvement of the education system, the goal is for student achievement and success to increase. If we succeed by increasing student performance on the EQAO test, it would suggest that the overall understanding of the expectations has also improved.
Information cited from the Ministry of Education and the EQAO websites.

Is Standardized Testing Good for Education?

I can’t say I know for certain. What I do know is how motivated I am as a teacher to help my students succeed by gaining a deep understanding of course content and a passion for the problem solving we do on a daily basis. I think that as long as you do what you believe is best for your students on a daily basis, then surely your students will benefit much more than any standardized test could ever do.

What’s Your Stance?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on “Teaching to the Test” and the standardized test debate… Leave a comment below…

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  • EQAO isn’t about improving learning, it never has been. The clue is in the name: “Accountability”. The tests are designed to determine whether students are meeting provincial standards. Period. Any other discussion about using results to improve student learning is a misdirection. They are a way for the public to decide if schools are doing their jobs, that’s why they are shared with the public. If they were about student learning they’d be conducted in different ways.

    The $33 millions is a vast underestimation. Firstly the money isn’t spend on every child but only those in grade 3, 6 9 & 10. Secondly these are just the direct costs. They don’t include all the time in staff meeting used up to discuss EQAO, they don’t include the teacher time spent in prepping or admin time used to get ready and they don’t include the time spent by support staff pulled from their jobs to support students writing the tests. What about the effects on those other students who don’t have EA’s helping them, but should?

    And the results just aren’t very accurate. The tests change from year to year so it makes it difficult to compare scores. Academics agree that more accurate results could be obtained at a fraction of the cost with random ‘spot’ tests.

    Finally any teacher who needs EQAO to be motivated probably shouldn’t be teaching. The best interests of students is all the motivation needed.

    • Hi Andrew:

      Thanks for the in-depth comment. When writing the post, I definitely wanted this to be a debate and you have raised some very good points.

      I think the original goal of any type of standardized test is to improve learning, however the way in which standardized testing is delivered anywhere in North America would prove that the focus is results. Once results are shared publicly, it should be our job as educators to analyze the data and make changes that we believe could help improve student learning and understanding. Making the results public so late into the summer or even early into the next year is not conducive to having teachers use the data for their next steps. Regardless of this fact, boards do focus on creating professional development opportunities that will address the gaps that exist between applied and academic students. Whether this PD funding is provided with the intent of improving learning or for improving results is up to you to decide. I would hope that any educator can see that improved results requires improved learning.

      I would agree that $33 million is likely an underestimation. Could the money be better spent? Absolutely. I’d also agree that boards still purchasing mass quantities of interactive whiteboards, TI-83+ graphing calculators and other outdated technology is a huge waste and would amount to much more than $33 million across the province. However, that is something we’ll save for another post! 🙂

      I don’t agree that the results aren’t very accurate. Tests change from year to year, absolutely. What about the students changing from year to year? That is the variable that cannot be controlled and thus directly comparing from year to year is silly since the students are different. As for ‘spot’ testing – I wouldn’t be against this, however I’d be interested to know which academics agree and what exactly their claim refers to.

      Lastly, I feel that I am a very motivated individual and I give my all regardless of what grade I am teaching. I personally like having my students assessed by someone other than myself to help me determine where my assessment practices and expectations I hold for my students would compare to someone else. I have never “needed” EQAO for motivation, but simply try to utilize this snap-shot assessment as best I can to enhance the learning experience of my students.

      Thanks for the comment, Andrew!

  • Sorry, but I forgot to mention that my focus on EQAO and their assessment practices has really opened me up to improving my own assessment practices. Allowing students to take multiple approaches to a problem rather than “the way we learned” was something that has helped me grow as an educator.

    EQAO isn’t going anywhere any time soon in Ontario, so I believe that we should take it and try to maximize the professional learning opportunity and any benefit you can find for your students rather than choose to ignore it. If educators sabotage EQAO, then WE as educators need to take some of the blame for wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.

  • Here are the objectives of EQAO as set out in the EQAO Act of 1996:

    “1. To evaluate the quality and effectiveness of elementary and secondary school education.
    2. To develop tests and require or undertake the administering and marking of tests of pupils in elementary and secondary schools.
    3. To develop systems for evaluating the quality and effectiveness of elementary and secondary school education.
    4. To research and collect information on assessing academic achievement.
    5. To evaluate the public accountability of boards and to collect information on strategies for improving that accountability.
    6. To report to the public and to the Minister of Education and Training on the results of tests and generally on the quality and effectiveness of elementary and secondary school education and on the public accountability of boards.
    7. To make recommendations, in its reports to the public and to the Minister of Education and Training, on any matter related to the quality or effectiveness of elementary and secondary school education or to the public accountability of boards. 1996, c. 11, s. 3.”

    You’ll see nothing about improving student learning, in fact nothing about improving at all. It’s about evaluating and reporting. Anything about improving is stuff added on after to justify it the boards, schools, etc.

    The grade 3 & 6 tests administered in 1996 took 5 full days. This year they took two-thirds of 2 days. Each year the tests are modified and changed.

    Alberta is eliminating their provincial testing and other jurisdictions (e.g. Texas) are drastically reducing it. We should too.

    • It is definitely disappointing that we do not see anything in the EQAO Act related to improving student learning, however I am curious to know what you think the purpose of “evaluating the quality and effectiveness of elementary and secondary school education” would be?

      When the Ministry, Districts and schools receive results, do you feel that the data is irrelevant when it comes to improving learning? I certainly hope that the Ministry of Education doesn’t simply look at the numbers and move on.

      I can agree that the actual “testing” does not necessarily improve learning, but it seems rather obvious to me that the purpose is to give a benchmark to address specific gaps in learning by strand. Do all teachers use the data effectively and take steps to improve? No. Should they? Yes.

      Could the money be better spent? Probably. However, I wonder what method would work better to help improve student learning through effective teaching practice if there are teachers/schools/districts ignoring the data that is provided to us by EQAO each year.

      EQAO data serves as a great way for me to reflect on my teaching practice, delivery of content and help me plan to make changes to improve each year. I’ll continue to use the data to the best of my ability and strive to improve student learning in the process.

  • The notion that something as complex as learning can be effectively represented by a provincially administered standardized test is inherently flawed. I don’t waste anyone’s money or time, but those who impose EQAO certainly do.

  • Thanks for sharing your article.

    I hope you are not under the impression that I believe the EQAO test is the only assessment tool that matters, because that is definitely not the case. As you touched on in your article, doing well on a test does not indicate whether you know something well. Knowing something for a test and knowing something for life are two different things.

    Should the Ministry and Boards across Ontario focus solely on the results of EQAO? Absolutely not. Do they? Absolutely. That is a different issue completely.

    EQAO is a snap-shot assessment that should be used as such. In my grade 9 academic and applied courses, EQAO represents 15% of their overall mark. 70% is represented by term work including assignments, videos created on the iPad allowing students to communicate their understanding, quizzes, tests and other forms of assessment that allow students to demonstrate and apply their knowledge.

    Why I feel EQAO is especially important specifically to grade 9 applied students is the huge gap between applied success and graduation rates and the EQAO test. The provincial average for grade 9 applied students is approximately 40% at level 3 or above, yet credit accumulation in these schools is still rather high. That scares me because it shows that over time teachers have managed to get kids credits, but not necessarily understanding. Should applied students be assessed through a traditional written test? Probably not. Again, another issue in itself.

    But when I see improvements to both EQAO scores, attendance, and overall success in applied courses, that indicates to me that something is working. I think EQAO has helped advocate for the applied/college learner and that is something that you cannot put a price on.

  • The purpose of EQAO is really quite simple. It is a political tool that allows politicians to make definitive statements about education. When it began the Mike Harris government used EQAO scores to show how poorly the education system in Ontario was functioning and needed reform. When the McGuinty liberals took over suddenly EQAO scores improved and showed what a good job they were doing with education. Look at any government document they point to increases in EQAO & graduation stats to show what a great job they are doing with education.

    If EQAO was really about student learning we wouldn’t publicize the results. Teachers would get the results privately and use them without stigmatizing whole groups of kids or schools. Teachers would administer in ways that would reduce student stress. I can say this because this is how much teachers use standardized tests in their teaching.

    Remember that when you get EQAO scores you are no longer teaching that group of students. They’ve moved on. This approach suggests that this year’s students are pretty much like next year’s and last year’s. They’re all the same like widgets. Standardized.

  • I’m not going to get political and discuss the government and why certain programs are funded. The government does things to get elected and stay in power.

    I’d be fine with publicizing or keeping results private. There are definitely positives to keeping results private to their own school/board.

    As mentioned in a previous comment, we shouldn’t be comparing groups of students like widgets. However, when the results of a school come in year after year with results in the same 5% range, that should tell us something. Don’t get me wrong; every school is unique and has unique issues.

    I think it comes down to whether schools make use of the data to help guide their instruction. If EQAO results comes in year after year and teachers fail to utilize the data to help close gaps in learning, then EQAO is a complete waste of money.

    Does your school spend any amount of time analyzing EQAO data or does your strong opposition to EQAO testing allow you to ignore the data completely? I can respect your opinion and opposition to EQAO as long as it doesn’t allow you to abandon any efforts to help your students improve on this assessment.

  • It’s important to be clear. I use data in my teaching and always have. It can be a useful source of insight, but EQAO is harmful to students and unreliable. There are many times when EQAO results contradict what experienced teachers know from hundreds of observations. Which of these do you trust? A one-time snapshot or hundreds of observations by a trained educator? We already pay millions of dollars to assess and improve student learning. Why do we need another system to do that?

    The purpose of what we’re doing in the classroom isn’t helping “… students improve on this assessment”. It’s helping students learn the entire curriculum. By focussing on EQAO there’s a narrowing that takes place which says that only those areas tested in those ways matter. That isn’t true.

    • Andrew, I have stated previously that we cannot put on the narrow “EQAO assessment goggles” and have our students, parents and administrators believe that results from this snapshot assessment should profile a student as “successful” or “unsuccessful.”

      We can argue about whether there are better ways to spend the money (I think we would both make changes), but I am concerned about the consistency of low-performing schools with little to no improvements over the years. Either this snapshot is catching these groups of DIFFERENT kids (not widgets) on a bad day every year, the groups of students received each year are consistently “bad” groups, or student learning is not improving at least in the areas that EQAO focuses on.

      Once again, I’ll be clear that the results of EQAO cannot paint a clear picture for an entire school year. However, if you want to preach about improving student learning, then EVERY form of assessment should be considered.

      By focusing on improving my questioning techniques both verbally and written, my students have improved on EQAO as well as my OTHER 60+ assessment records. I might even be bold enough to state that if your students are improving on your other assessments from year to year, it would be difficult for that not to carry over to the EQAO assessment as well.

  • How do you know that your students are improving? EQAO never compares the same groups of students to themselves. Perhaps your students are improving their scores because of the excellent non-data driven teaching that teachers did before the students get to you. The only way we’d know if it was your improved instruction is if there was a pre and post test.

    Let’s also acknowledge that EQAO scores reflect factors that affect learning but teachers have no control over. Many schools that continually score low do so because they serve students who live in poverty which affects their learning for many years. This affects their ability to learn. As studies are increasingly showing, test scores aren’t a reflection of teaching but of class and poverty

    Pretending that EQAO scores measure student learning and teacher ability is damaging to teacher and student morale. And, as professor Westheimer explains here: it’s unnecessary. It can be replaced with a much smaller, random testing program, that would give that same feedback without damaging students.

    Finally, if you are using 60 other assessment records then why is EQAO needed? If EQAO is merely confirming what you already know, why bother with it? Your 60 observations spread out over months of teaching are much more reliable than a single test. Why can’t the government simply trust that you, the person they hired to teach & assess learning, know what you’re doing? If they want to know if students are learning why don’t they just ask you?

    • Stating that EQAO never compares the same groups of students is completely false. If you analyze the data, you would be able to make correlations between what students did on their previous test and what they did on the current test. When I can see the percentage of students who did not meet the standard in grade 6, but met the standard in grade 9, that at least tells me that we are making progress as a family of schools from grade 7 to 9. It would be ideal if we could do a pre- and post-test, but I wouldn’t want to be the guy from EQAO announcing it to someone who opposes the money spent on a single test. And while the suggestion is a good one, even that could not give you the answers you are looking for. Your data should show improvements from the pre-test to the post-test, since in the pre-test, we haven’t introduced the expectations for the course. If your results decreased, then that would be very scary.

      Let’s take the pre/post idea a little further. So, currently we have some schools doing consistently poorly on EQAO (aka the post-test). What would the pre-test results do to help you improve student learning? If, let’s say, 30% of my students have met the standard on EQAO, I would expect that less than 30% would have met on the pre-test. How does this help student learning if we haven’t explored the expectations the pre-test has assessed?

      The scores from every assessment that takes place in our classrooms “reflect factors that affect learning but teachers have no control over”. Yes, poverty and rough homes as well as a boat load of other factors are going to affect the overall picture. The data is there to help us move forward. If my school has 40% at the provincial standard or 80%, the point is to analyze the gaps and help move forward. If my results hover in the same 5% range consistently, then at least we need to address where the gaps are and devise a plan. Can you do this without EQAO? Sure. But if we have a huge amount of schools staying in that 5% range without signs of improvement, what does that say about improving student learning?

      I know, I know… widgets. I get it. Different kids. Unfair to compare. Being in a secondary school where students can fail to receive a credit, we are constantly looking at success rates. Should I propose at the next board meeting to throw out all year-to-year data analysis since our kids aren’t widgets?

      EQAO scores definitely do not measure teacher ability and it cannot measure all aspects of student learning, but it does open my eyes to see that maybe my students are “used” to my assessment practices and questioning techniques. Do they really understand the content? Could I not subconsciously be moulding my test questions to revolve around the key topics in curriculum that I deemed most important? Remember that my 60+ assessments represent 85% of the final mark for my students. Having another educator (remember, EQAO questions are created by educators in the summertime) toss a couple questions their way is certainly going to help them deal with adversity rather than getting comfortable with what they’re used to.

      I believe that every educator has the power to do great things and I feel that the government does trust us. Otherwise, EQAO would determine whether a student moves on, whether a teacher moves up the grid or maybe even keeps their job. In Ontario, we have some of the most secure jobs in any industry and I ask you to consider what other field simply “trusts” the professional when results aren’t improving. In the business world, you get fired. In education, we get to keep doing the same thing, year after year without having to justify anything.

      If we’re working hard, covering expectations and improving student learning every day, then what do we have to worry about?

  • Your suggestion that grade 9 teachers are comparing grade 6 test data from feeder schools to their grade 9 scores, and that this has any relevance, is ridiculous. Test data is collected 3 YEARS previously in feeder schools, students come and go, go to other high schools and are taught by two other teachers, yet you think those comparisons reflect that YOUR teaching techniques are working? Really?

    If we have schools “hovering in the 5% range” there are two possible explanations. Firstly, despite the efforts of parents and students and dedicated and highly qualified teachers for 10 YEARS, the factors preventing those students from learning are outside the scope of the school system. The suggestion that a teacher can affect that in a single course with teaching strategies is laughable. The second option is that EQAO doesn’t actually demonstrate real learning but instead the ability to take a one day test, give the answers in the format required and deal effectively with the stress that such a test creates.

    I assume that as an effective teacher you differentiate for your students. You match the learning strategies to a variety of ways that students learn and also evaluate in the same way. You recognize that all students are different and each learns and expresses that learning in a unique way. EQAO doesn’t allow for that. Students don’t get to demonstrate their understanding in whatever way works for them. They have to do it in the way prescribed by the test. Perhaps the “5% hovering” schools are filled with students who need to express their understanding in ways other that those prescribed by EQAO? Maybe all EQAO is doing is measuring the ability of students to conform to the system and follow the rules.

    “Being in a secondary school where students can fail to receive a credit, we are constantly looking at success rates”. This is such a damning statement. As an educator the only thing you should be looking at are students. You have lost yourself in the numbers. You are not there to measure 60 data points or elevate your success rates, you are there to teach students. Any discussion about education that doesn’t start with the needs of students first is misdirected.

    Whether a student is learning isn’t something that can measured by a test. A test can be one source of helpful information but it doesn’t represent learning. Your faith in your numbers may make you feel better but it’s misplaced, and in doing so you are supporting the existence of a system that is sucking millions of dollars away from what schools are supposed to be about. Teaching students.

  • Many of your statements are contradictory. You don’t want to compare the data from one widget to another, then you shoot down the use of comparing the same widget with data from the same.

    EQAO definitely does not allow for students to show their understanding in many ways as an effective teacher would. However, your suggestion that schools with consistent scores (regardless if they are high or low) have students that all the same (like widgets) in the fact that they cannot express their understanding of material in that way? Seems highly unlikely, doesn’t it? Or are they really widgets like you claim EQAO and teachers like myself believe?

    My students are able to show their learning in any way that is best for them. Written, verbal, visual, whatever works for them. All semester, students are able to show their work in a variety of ways and are pushed to show their work in more ways than one. I’d argue that students who have a deep understanding of the learning goals and have been encouraged to show their work in a multitude of ways throughout the course will perform better on assessments including EQAO. Exemplars that are provided online show a multitude of solutions which are level 3 or better – not a “widget-like” response. At times, I even have to break down the solution to figure out where the student was coming from.

    It is clear to me that regardless of what I say, you will not look at the other side of the coin. I have stated numerous times that you had some good points, but when you are now bashing analyzing data and contradicting everything you said earlier about utilizing the data that EQAO provides, I feel this is a one-way conversation.

    The best and most effective student learning takes place prior to any summative assessment. Assessment as and for learning are the vast majority of my assessment and evaluation records. Students can improve any task throughout the entire year knowing that there will be a final summative evaluation (30% of the final secondary course mark) that will take place. The goal is for students to their best and improve on areas of weakness all semester long with a focus on deep understanding of learning goals. Didn’t do well with distribution? Go back and show me you know it. No harm done.

    To suggest that having a final “performance” at the end of the year is ridiculous is like suggesting that the playoffs for your hockey team, the concert for your band and opening night for the play is ridiculous because it is too stressful and is unnecessary to prove that your team, concert or drama club are excellent at what they do.

    Our job as teachers is to guide them to deep understanding of learning goals throughout the school year, build their confidence and make them understand that they can do anything they want regardless of what a single assessment says. Why not allow your students to get on stage at the end of the course to show off all of their hard work? If they are prepared, then there should be no stress. If they aren’t, then what can we do to improve for next year?

    If only we had some data to help guide our school improvement plans and family of schools meetings to try and determine our next steps as a professional. Ah well, guess we’ll just keep doing the same old, same old and blame it on the next set of widgets!

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