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EQAO is broken and Ford government can't be trusted to fix it: former EQAO chair

Former EQAO chair Charles Pascal says the EQAO test results have been misused. The data was never meant for school rankings. He says the system is broken and the Ford government can't be trusted to fix it.

EQAO data was never meant for school rankings former EQAO chair says

Former EQAO chair Charles Pascal says the EQAO test results have been misused. The data was never meant for school rankings. He says the system is broken and the Ford government can't be trusted to fix it. 12:24

Ontario's English Catholic teachers start, today, a work-to-rule campaign that will include a refusal to administer the province's standardized EQAO test. 

Education minister Stephen Lecce said school boards can delay the grade 9 EQAO math test that was supposed to happen this week. He's hoping students will take the test in June.

Teachers also won't be supervising extracurricular activities or field trips but one EQAO expert says this could be the perfect storm that ends up killing the EQAO test. All of this has raised questions about the future of EQAO, its role and who, if anyone, it still serves. Charles Pascal was deputy education minister when EQAO was started. He has served as EQAO's chair and is a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

He spoke with the CBC's Conrad Collaco about the test, its value and its future. You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or listen to the full audio interview by hitting the play button above.

Charles Pascal, educator, former deputy education minister 
Charles Pascal is a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. (OISE)

What were educators hoping that this standardized test would achieve?

Well, the original idea was a very, very simple one and that is to provide feedback to the public at large, provincially, about how the system is doing regarding various subjects and various grades but most importantly it was meant to be providing information — school by school — about how the students in that school are doing and, importantly, the intent was schools should compare themselves to themselves, year over year.

In other words it was designed to be a positive source of information, not the only source of information but a single source of information. When it was used positively principals and teachers get together they look at the results. They compare themselves to last year and they sit around and say, 'so what should we do to improve those results?' Unfortunately, there have been lots of unintended consequences where the whole process and the results have been misused.

We have real estate agents that, basically, say 'buy this house because it's so close to this school that just performed really high on EQAO results.'

Buyer beware. You don't know whether that school has been on the upswing in terms of year-over-year comparisons or not. Newspapers and the well-known Western machine of misinformation, the Fraser Institute, have been ranking schools. The data was never meant for school rankings to compare schools to schools. It was meant to compare a school to itself year-over-year and that starts putting pressure on the school leaders and principals and teachers. And therein lies I think one of the biggest sources of irritation for the federations and many of the teachers they represent now. On the other hand context is very important. And in this case we have a government that, a year ago, appointed — you mentioned that I was chair. I was chair for about a year or so during which I earned about twelve hundred dollars of compensation for travel — and the government about a little over a year ago appointed a failed candidate for Mr. Ford's party — unqualified — to take on a newly created full-time $140,00 a year chairmanship.

No chair before that had ever received anything other than a modest stipend, as I mentioned. And so the unfortunate irony is that the CEO and chief statistician who, when this appointment was made, were in the process of modernizing EQAO trying to deal with all these unintended consequences. And I'm not sure it's an accident,  maybe it's a coincidence,  that these two remarkable change agents recently left to go to other positions in the field of education. Context is important.

Ford government hired 'unqualified crony' to head EQAO: former chair

If you have a testing regime in the context of a government that has not shown through its behaviour it understands what to do to improve the quality of education. Quite the opposite. A government that is basically dampening prospects for a better future regarding our education system and those who graduate from it and you put it in the hands of a crony this testing agency. 

It can be used to catch the schools doing things wrong rather doing things right. So, this could be a perfect storm where, because of the federation's view EQAO and how the government has been treating EQAO and going forward this may be time to put EQAO on ice then reinvent it down the road. There are different things to be done to improve it with less cost. And in the meantime emphasize the most important source of information about how students are doing and that is the high quality feedback the teachers provide and should provide students in every subject. Day by day, week by week, month by month. And finally, it's interesting to note in Finland, which usually scores at the top internationally in terms of education performance, they have no national testing program.

They emphasize continuous quality feedback to students as the most important vehicle for improving student performance and student success. As somebody who was involved in developing under the previous government's auspice, if you will, what it was intended to do given what I think is this perfect storm, I think EQAO is seriously threatened and maybe it's time to put it on ice.

I've spoken with many teachers who get pressure from their principal over EQAO. They say the test forces them to teach to that test rather than to the needs of the specific students in their class. What issues do you see causing problems for teachers and students because of the way the EQAO test is being run right now?

Well, first of all when people say teachers are just teaching to the test, it simply isn't a truism.

The EQAO tests are based on evaluating the Ontario curriculum outcomes. So, teachers are teaching all of the subjects against the backdrop of the Ontario curriculum. That's all they're doing. Teaching to the test implies they're doing something special to get a great outcome.

But I'm quite sympathetic to the pressure that some principals and superintendents and teachers feel when schools are compared and they're not supposed to be compared. Again the irony is these things were in the process of being dealt with through this modernization.

I will reveal this. Back in the day when the government of the day was looking at what to do with provincial testing my personal recommendation: I had just come back from the OECD. I was Canada's deputy minister representative to their education committee. A tough assignment.  Had to go to Paris a couple of times a year.

And I came back and my suggestion to that government over there was to develop a random selection of schools from around the province. Control for geography, urban and rural, French, English, Catholic, public and then do a random selection of students within those schools. Ask their parents to provide permission so those kids could go, from time to time, and take some tests and act as consultants to the ministry.

So, if in Hamilton and Kapuskasing and Thunder Bay and Mississauga, through that random approach, are not performing well on something, it's not their fault.

This has all been a randomized situation and there's a problem with a particular performance in this particular module in math then you get together curriculum experts and you look at the teaching of it and you try to fix it. And so what's being tested, clearly, aren't individual schools. What's being tested is the Ontario curriculum and how to improve it. It could be done at much less cost than what we're doing right now. But this has to be invented or reinvented by a government that  actually wants to seriously improve the quality of education Ontario.

So, the context in which unions have been fighting against EQAO, for the reasons that we've discussed, and the government in whose hands I don't trust under an unqualified crony heading it up. 

It's a tool that, in this context, doesn't look as though it will carry a promise for improving education when in fact the last nine months we've seen anything other than an interest on this government about how to go about improving the quality of education. Quite the contrary. And that leads us back to the labour negotiations which are difficult because Ontario students, parents and neighbours all know what's happened in the classroom. This isn't hypothetical about what's going on at the bargaining table. Things have already happened regarding class sizes and the loss of courses for grades eleven and twelve students required for entry into a particular college or university program. Everybody's living with the damage has already been done. EQAO in the hands of this particular government, under the leadership of a crony which has led to departures of key people who were modernizing EQAO— well this was a perfect storm for to put it on ice and reinvent it somewhere down the road when there's a government that actually wants to improve the quality of education in Ontario.

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