Corp Comm Connects

Ontario moves ahead with standardized testing despite calls from some school boards to put EQAO on hold

Some school boards question province’s decision to carry out testing amid the ongoing stress of the pandemic.
May 11, 2022
Isabel Teotonio

The province is moving ahead with standardized testing in elementary schools across Ontario, despite requests from some boards to cancel the assessments because of the increased stress they place on students and staff.

Evaluations of reading, writing and math for students in Grades 3 and 6 began a week ago and will continue throughout May and June, which is the first time they are being written since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are consciously, as a board, trying to relieve pressure on our staff, students, families and communities,” said Steven Reid, associate director, programs, at York Region District School Board, which last month asked the province to cancel spring testing.

“So it would be appreciated if there was any shifting in the requirements of a large-scale assessment, such as EQAO,” he told the Star.

The Education Quality and Accountability Office -- an arm’s length government agency that oversees the so-called EQAO tests -- says the results are an important measure of how students are doing, as learning recovery is a key issue. It says the data should shine a light on how students are doing at the individual, school, board and provincial level.

EQAO tests for Grade 9 math and the secondary school literacy test started in the fall -- 260,000 students have participated so far -- and they are ongoing. But some boards didn’t administer the numeracy test during Semester One because of school closures after the winter break.

This year’s tests are in a new online format, although kids in Grades 3 and 6 have the option of writing their answers to open-ended questions using pencil and paper.

Since the tests are in a new digital format, and there’s new curricula -- elementary mathematics and the de-streamed Grade 9 math course -- the agency needs to set new standards that define levels of student achievement. Test results for the 2021--2022 school year, and the next school year, will establish a new baseline for EQAO achievement data and results.

Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, a professor at Wilfrid Laurier University who specializes in education and inequality, says Ontario has had no systematic data about student achievement or attainment since the pandemic began.

“We really need system-wide data on how kids are doing in school and at this point EQAO is the only game in town for providing some kind of picture of kids’ progress on important areas,” she told the Star.

Testing was paused at the start of the pandemic. In May 2021, the province announced testing would resume for the 2021-2022 school year and be administered to in-person students. Those learning remotely can go to school to write the test in-person.

The pandemic has led to unprecedented disruptions, with Ontario schools closed to in-person learning longer than any other Canadian jurisdiction since March 2020. And with the appearance of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant in the winter, boards have grappled with record levels of teacher absences due to illness or isolation, and staffing shortages.

Earlier this year, boards such as Waterloo Region District School Board and Avon Maitland District School Board, wrote to the province asking it to cancel EQAO testing. And as spring assessments neared, the York Region District School Board and Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, among others, made similar requests.

Last month, Allan Tam, chair of the York public board, wrote to the province that administering EQAO tests “is a monumental task in the best circumstances” because it requires significant staff time and resources. But the new online platform “has created additional strain ... As we continue to be in a pandemic, these challenges are significantly amplified, as are the negative impacts.”

In a letter sent a couple of weeks later, Dawn Danko, chair of Hamilton’s public board, said the new online test requires additional training for staff, support for students and increases “overall stress on an already stretched system.” She said the board is “facing ongoing significant challenges to school operations while trying to focus on supporting student well-being and learning recovery.”

Heightened teacher absences mean staff have had to be redeployed, disrupting workflow and preparation time, she said, adding, “Our ability to support professional development related to EQAO and the new platform is compromised as we focus on moving staff to keep schools open. We are highly concerned about the additional pressure EQAO administration will place on our staff.”

Kim Sas, a Grade 3 teacher in the Halton Catholic District School Board, would rather focus on getting students through the regular curriculum. Instead, she needs to get them ready for the test and up to speed with how to use the computers.

“I think (the province) should’ve left it for one more year,” said Sas. “This would’ve been a good year just to get back to being a community, enjoying each other’s company in the classroom, trying to fill as much learning loss as possible and get as much curriculum into the little ones as possible.”

Toronto’s Catholic and public school boards spoke with the province about their concerns with administering EQAO this year. At those boards, students who took Grade 9 math in Semester One didn’t write the test because schools were closed, however tests will be given to those taking Grade 9 math in Semester Two. Meanwhile, Peel’s public board says that in order to ensure consistency across its Grade 9 math sections, those taking the course in Semester Two also won’t need to participate in the EQAO test.