Thursday, September 23, 2010

More EQAO fuss?

This has probably been an interesting week over at the Education Quality and Accountability Office. Earlier this week, the issue broke of a small number of schools (compared to the total number the agency deals with) that had been investigated by the agency after reports of staff members cheating came into the office.
The investigation brought about another opportunity for its detractors to kick the agency and its supporters to rise to its defence. Interestingly however, I found some interesting thoughts in media and the education community on the news of the week, as well as to whether or not it should change anything about the way the EQAO operates.
Its detractors are always looking for another reason to kill the tests, period. The cheating served their purpose since the staff members' actions could be excused as the impact of all that stress they feel over their students' results.
First to support (in opinion) was Moira MacDonald at the Sun, in a piece published Wednesday. From that:
The complaints were the same as every other year: The tests do nothing to improve learning, the testing agency costs too much (despite the EQAO getting accolades from Ontario’s auditor-general in 2009 for cutting spending by 20% over five years, down to $33 million last year) and the tests are driving what happens in the classroom (they’d be useless if they didn’t).
That annual message is so predictable I’ve stopped commenting on it each and every year it comes out. It would only be news if ETFO did not complain about standardized testing.
The idea testing leads to cheating so we should toss the test would be another predictable, though illogical criticism.
Taking this farther, the other illogic to watch out for is if people cheat, it’s the fault of the test, not the cheater (to be fair, the EQAO says some rule-breaking in the current investigations was not intentional).
I’m betting no high school student gets away with that one when they get caught texting the answers to somebody else.
A day later, the Globe and Mail -- which broke this story earlier in the week -- posted its own editorial on the subject. It was tweeted by the Premier's media office later in the day, which is where I had the chance to read it.
What does “teaching to the test” mean in the context of this particular test? It means teaching children to make sense of what they read. It means asking children to draw meaning out of a text, not just regurgitate parts of that text. Pupils need to think creatively and express that thought in grammatical, properly spelled words on a page. There is nothing rote about this test. There are no facts to memorize, no drills that would help here. Teachers should teach to this test. That is their job.
Is it too much pressure when schools are asked to prepare their pupils to read a story and answer questions about it? If it is, we would be asking less of our schools and teachers than we ask of our children. Apparently it is too much pressure for some – like the Toronto principal who prematurely broke the cellophane seal on Grade 3 and 6 tests and photocopied them for teachers. That is the wrong kind of teaching to the test. It is an admission of failure.
The literacy tests that are now done across Canada show where pupils, and teaching practices, need improvement. When provinces and school boards provide the resources to improve those teaching practices, the pupils make gains. The tests have also helped create a welcome focus on reading and writing. At least two hours a day, or roughly 40 per cent of the typical public school day, in every province, are devoted to reading, being read aloud to, discussing books, sharing books, and writing. That is a massive and appropriate amount of teaching to the test.
The week's hubbub even brought out People for Education's Annie Kidder on her blog, which I had up until today been unaware of. It will be added to the blogroll on the right as soon as I finish writing this post.
At People for Education, we really do try to be objective, and I really do try, when talking to the media, to say “on the one hand this, and on the other hand that”. The media doesn’t always like that sort of thing. They like their arguments black and white.  Politics, too likes things in black and white. Test score targets are a nice simple political promise and go with the black and whiteness of much of our political landscape. The discussion becomes a simple one, of “up good, down bad.”
Kidder's wider point is that testing is good, but the simple use of results in larger society neglects how the data can be used, and drives a policy agenda too focused on reading, writing and math instead of a broader assessment of how students are doing on the entire curriculum.
I've written in this space in response to the complaints EQAO dominates the school day and the curriculum in this province, but it's always good to see others agreeing this focus isn't a bad thing. To that, I've always added and argued that good teachers, good schools, recognize how to work on literacy and numeracy in cross-curricular ways, so they don't 'neglect' the rest of the curriculum but rather use it to reinforce those skills. It's tricky-- a class I participated in this week showed students don't automatically transfer communication skills from language arts to math. They have to be taught and explicitly shown that the way they communicate in English can be the same when they speak about mathematical problems.
To Kidder's point, I would love to see the EQAO expand into other curriculum areas, to provide that independent assessment in those subjects as part of the wider assessment toolbox. Probably a pipe dream, but nothing that is that big of a leap -- from SATs to university entrance exams, to high school completion exams, these broader assessments already exist elsewhere.