Experts weigh in on pros and cons of EQAO tests as students resume assessments

Many elementary and high school students in Ontario are entering the final weeks of writing EQAO tests after a two-year hiatus. Some experts argue the provincewide standardized tests should go, others say they should stay.

Some see value in tests, others say there are better, more equitable ways to gather information

A red-headed student with a pencil writes at his school desk with other students in a classroom with notices and papers pinned to bulletin boards lining the walls.
Many elementary and high school students in Ontario are currently writing their EQAO tests after a two-year hiatus. (Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images)

Many elementary and high school students in Ontario are entering the final weeks of school writing their EQAO tests after a two-year hiatus. 

The provincewide standardized tests were paused due to COVID-19 lockdowns, but returned this year in a new online format, despite calls from teacher unions and school boards to pause it for another year. The tests were also briefly halted last month due to technical issues with the website, but have since resumed.

It's all added up to stress for students and educators says Jeff Pelich, president of the Waterloo region branch of the Elementary Teacher's Federation of Ontario.

"At a time when we're coming out of a pandemic and well being and the mental health of students is front and centre, this only made the situation worse," Pelich said.

"It made no sense to us that the government pushed forward with the EQAO tests this year when they could have put it on hold for another year, address some of these concerns, or take this as an opportunity to stop doing the EQAO tests as a whole."

Math and literacy skills tested

The Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is an arm's length government agency overseeing the standardized math and literacy tests written in Grades 3, 6, 9 and 10 since 1996.

The agency offers "independent data based on the learning expectations of the Ontario curriculum."

EQAO provides results to students who write the test. Schools and school boards receive reports about how students did on the test, "as well as contextual, attitudinal and behavioural information from questionnaires in an interactive online reporting tool."

The province's standardized testing model, has gained criticism over the years because of how much it costs — $50 per student tested, the EQAO office says — and the vagueness of the information provided to schools and students.

Ardavan Eizadirad, an assistant professor in the faculty of education at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., says the testing shows whether students hit specific criteria and at what level.

"You don't really get descriptive feedback about what you did wrong and how to improve it and we know that when it comes to learning, timely and descriptive feed back is so important," Eizadirad said.

Calls to cancel tests

There have also been calls to scrap the tests, something the provincial Liberals campaigned on during the election earlier this month.

government-commissioned report in 2018, under the previous Liberal government, also recommended phasing out the EQAO tests for Grade 3 and Grade 9 students.

It also recommended an overhaul of the standardized Grade 6 test and replace the literacy tests with one that would not be a requirement to graduate. 

Eizadirad believes there are better, more equitable ways to collect information to gauge where students are at.

"When I say we should get rid of EQAO, I'm not arguing that we shouldn't collect information provincially to map out the big picture, but we have to look at how we're collecting data," he said.

He suggests school staff could instead report their own data over the school year.

"EQAO's job could be to compile that data and be a facilitator," he said.

Keep the EQAO

David Johnson, an economics professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, argues there is value in keeping standardized testing in schools.

Johnson, who has has been researching standardized testing for the past 17 years, said EQAO provides information in a timely manner that wouldn't otherwise be known if the tests weren't implemented.

"It tells us over time of the assessments, literacy outcomes have improved in Ontario and that math outcomes initially improved and then fell," he said.

"If we don't do any kind of external assessment of students on an annual basis, then we will have very little information that is useful on a student level, on school level and on a provincial level to tell us these things."

He said the results also demonstrate that schools in low income neighbourhoods, who are often predicted to have lower outcomes, can overcome that stigma.

"You are not pre-determined as a teacher to have the outcome most closely predicted by the [neighbourhood's] demographics," he said.

Johnson said the province will also be able to measure and know the scope of the learning shortfall as schools come out of the pandemic, evidence he will keep an eye on as test results come out in the fall.