In my teaching career there were many years where as a Gr. 6 teacher I had the “pleasure “ of administering the EQAO tests to my students. Today the Ontario results are released to the public and to students. Lists ranking schools become public knowledge, and placing students on percentile ratings are released to parents. All of this is done in the name of “accountability” and feedback, but that hinges on whether the tests are actually accurate indicators of student performance.
In light of that question, I wanted to relate one story from my classroom, during preparation for the test where we were using the questions from the previous year’s test. The math question seemed fairly straight forward. A man wanted to dig a hole in the ground with certain dimensions and move away the soil. He had a truck, also with dimensions provided, with which to drive away the soil. The question was how many trips would he have to make with the truck in order to remove all the soil. The question specified that the truck would be loaded so the top was flat, which was a good idea as without that info it would not be a doable question. The idea was to divide the volume of the hole by the volume of the truck and recognize that any remainder would require an extra trip. But there was no remainder, -a fact that became an issue. So we did the problem and it worked out handily that the truck would have to make eight trips. Problem solved.
Except that one boy’s had shot up and said, “That’s wrong.” Now, this boy was one of several in my class who was receiving Special Ed. assistance for math, but I like to think of myself as an enlightened teacher, so I was curious as to what he wanted to say. He said, “Everyone knows that if you dig a hole and then fill it up again, the soil takes up more space because it is not packed down. The truck would have to make more trips because the dug up soil would take up more space than it did in the hole.” Dead right!! And after that I began to look more closely at many of the questions that were included in the test, both in the Math and English sections. I noticed that there were always questions that had slipped by whatever passed for quality control and the EQAO writers.
Add to this serious concerns about the marking process for the more subjective parts of the test and the whole question of the suitability of standardized testing to measure anything accurate, and you begin to understand why many teachers are skeptical of EQAO. Add to that the fact that the process often removes two weeks of instruction time, for testing and preparation, from the school year. Add to that the philosophical question of what we are doing to our children by rating their schools publicly and individual performance privately.
Some may argue that this kind of feedback allows schools and teachers to focus resources on needy areas and schools. This has not been my experience. And when it does result in resource allocation it is often in the wrong way. For people obsessed with statistics, it is odd that EQAO proponents haven’t taken into consideration the Bell Curve. As teachers we all know that there are waves of classes that are either more or less capable. The random distribution of academic ability, social or family stability and other factors fluctuate on the Bell Curve. There are classes that have a mix of students who cause the class to be more challenging than others. Teachers know this and try to mobilize the available resources both for individuals and for the class in general. But if this class takes an EQAO test, feedback usually applies to that teacher and that grade rather than following the class as would be practical. I’ve seen EQAO results for the same school and teachers which have varied widely from one year to the next.
In short, the tests don’t really work and take up a lot of time that could be used for valuable instruction in something other than how to take a test. Whatever feedback that arises from the tests is often misunderstood or misplaced. However EQAO tests do benefit one group of people. The businesses that publish them have made a fortune. Publishers have benefited from selling new textbooks and resources that supposedly address the concerns raised by the testing. It’s quite the industry.