New Brunswick

Criticism mounts over government's 'biased' French immersion survey

There’s a growing chorus of criticism that the provincial government’s online survey on French immersion is biased and is designed to lead respondents to a specific result.

Questions designed to lead people to certain responses, say data specialists and other critics

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says he wants to base decisions about French immersion on data and the public's response. (Gilles Landry/Radio-Canada)

There's a growing chorus of criticism that the provincial government's online survey on French immersion is biased and is designed to lead respondents to a specific result.

Experts and parents say the questions are misleading and incomplete, and some of them are accusing Education Minister Dominic Cardy of skewing the survey to justify moving the immersion entry point back to Grade 3.

"I feel that there is a plan in place that they hope to revert back to the third-grade entry point and they're looking for data to show that New Brunswickers want that," said Isabelle Agnew, a graduate student at the University of Alberta,  who studies data and statistics.

"To do that, you word questions very particularly and you get the data you're looking for."

Sackville parent Rebecca Leaman, who plans to enrol her two children in French immersion, said the wording "kind of guides you to choose" answers that support the Grade 3 option.

"It was really just trying to reinforce a political agenda, which is fine, but they should state, 'This is our political agenda, do you agree with us or not?' rather than stating this is an unbiased survey."

Questions lacking information

Sandra Magalhaes, a research associate at the New Brunswick Institute for Research, Data and Training said the questions lack key information and that could lead respondents to choose answers they might not otherwise select.

"If I was to develop this survey, I definitely wouldn't word it that way," she said. "When I looked at the questions, I had a lot of questions about the data. When you're presenting data you need to be very complete about it."

Some New Brunswickers think the provincial government’s online survey on French immersion is biased and designed to lead respondents to a specific result. 0:56

She said someone filling out the online questionnaire is "assuming this is an accurate piece of data and you're not missing information."

Cardy announced a public consultation last week on French-second-language education. He said he's open to the possibility of moving the immersion entry point back to Grade 3 from Grade 1 to address teacher shortages and improve assessment results.

In opposition, the Progressive Conservatives loudly opposed a Liberal decision to move it from Grade 3 to Grade 1.


Do you have questions about New Brunswick's French immersion program?


Agnew said the online survey's questions cast the Grade 3 entry point in a positive light while using negative language for the Grade 1 option.

One question says that "only" 10 per cent of the students who entered immersion in Grade 1 in 2005 achieved advanced-level French or higher at the end of high school.

But that doesn't mention that many of those students didn't stay in immersion for the full 12 years, Agnew pointed out. Of the students who remained, 46.7 per cent were at advanced or higher, according to the province's 2017-18 assessments.

The question also doesn't say how many students reached an intermediate or intermediate-plus level. But another question calls it a "documented success" that 92 per cent of students who started immersion in Grade 3 achieved the intermediate level.

Sandra Magalhaes, a research associate at UNB's New Brunswick Institute for Research, Data and Training, says she would question data based on the questions used in the government survey. (McGill University Health Centre Research Institute)

The implication is that Grade 1 entry is a failure and Grade 3 entry is a success, Agnew said, even though it's based on different ways of measuring.

"You're comparing apples to oranges, and it's hard for the average person to take in that information correctly," she said.

Magalhaes agreed. "The benchmark is different for those two questions. … If you're comparing across questions and numbers, it would have to be the same benchmark."

And while the other relevant data is available online in various locations, few respondents are likely to search for it and find it while filling out the questionnaire, she said.

"The context in which the survey is presented doesn't provide people with all the resources they need to answer the questions [based on] their own beliefs, or what they think."

Increased complaints

Liberal MLA Chuck Chiasson said he has heard complaints from many of his constituents that the online survey has been crafted to give the PCs a rationale for moving it back to Grade 3.

"It's very obvious to a lot of people what's going on here," he said. "It's totally biased toward the outcome that Minister Cardy is looking for. … I think it's a joke."

Another parent, Kirsten McKnight of Fredericton, said it's "so very obvious that the questions were leading. It seems like a very blatant attempt to justify switching the [entry] point back."

One question says that only 10 per cent of the students who entered immersion in Grade 1 in 2005 achieved advanced-level French or higher at the end of high school. It doesn't mention that many of those students didn't stay in immersion for the full 12 years. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Cardy was not available for an interview to respond to the critics. He said last week he would not prejudge the outcome of the consultation.

"That would undermine it if the minister said at the beginning what he wants to do," he said.

On social media, Cardy has rebutted complaints about biased questions.

"If you don't like the questionnaire, send in long-form answers," he wrote. "That's why the option is there. Or get in touch with me directly."

But Leaman said it's unlikely that most respondents will make that effort.

"We all know from doing surveys that checking boxes is the easiest thing to do."

'I don't think it's credible'

Cardy's department said in a written statement Friday afternoon that it has already heard from more than 6,850 people on the issue.

Agnew, who went through the French immersion program in Moncton-area schools, said she was "increasingly infuriated" as she went through the survey last week.

She noted that another question, on the shortage of teachers with the required proficiency to teach immersion, offers no other options on addressing the problem.

"I don't think it's credible at all," she said. "I think any statistics that get pulled from this survey will be problematic at best."

Agnew said her own experience demonstrates how the statistics can be misleading: because of scheduling conflicts in high school, she was one course short of being considered an immersion graduate.

Even so, she has an advanced-plus assessment — but it doesn't show up in the statistics measuring the success of the program because she didn't officially finish immersion.

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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