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4 takeaways from the audit of the N.W.T.'s education system

The Office of the Auditor General took a detailed look at the N.W.T.’s K-12 education system — here are our four key takeaways from the report.

The Office of the Auditor General delivered the report on K-12 education Thursday

On Thursday, the federal Office of the Auditor General delivered its latest audit looking at the N.W.T.'s education system to the members of the Legislative Assembly. (John Last/CBC)

The federal Office of the Auditor General delivered its latest audit to the members of the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly on Thursday.

The 33-page report offers a detailed look at K-12 education from the territorial capital to its smallest communities.

Officials with the territory's Department of Education, Culture and Employment says it has accepted all of the audit's recommendations. It will now fall to the department's new minister, R.J. Simpson, to find a way to implement them.

Here are four key takeaways from the auditor general's report.

1. The territory is doing worse than they're telling us

One key finding of the report is that the territory is failing to collect accurate data on student outcomes and, in some cases, misinterpreting it.

The report found the department inflated graduation rates by almost 30 per cent, achieving its 72 per cent success rate by simply dividing the number of graduates by the number of 18-year-olds in the territory.

The audit found that closer to 44 per cent of students actually graduated, using methods that are standard across the country.

This inflation of the graduation rate was particularly pronounced for Indigenous students and students from outside regional centres.

It's hard to say if the department's efforts to tackle this issue are working.

That's because, 10 years after the auditor general identified issues with their assessments, the department still has not settled on what metrics to use to evaluate the success of their programs.

As a result, the department couldn't say to auditors whether things had improved.

Instead of developing standard metrics, the department issued a slew of "ambitious" improvement plans, which officials with the department told auditors were "unrealistic."

The audit found the department made no effort to measure its progress on these "action plans."

2. Social passing isn't working

"Social passing" is the practice of keeping students with kids of their same age, rather than holding them back on the basis of their academic performance.

One alarming chart in the report shows the rate of students who repeat a grade skyrockets after Grade 10, when "social passing" is no longer an option.

Almost 40 per cent of students in Grade 10 repeated the grade, according to the audit, and another 15 per cent did not return to school. That trend continues into Grade 11 and 12, when roughly 40 per cent of students fail or drop out.

The report says these numbers, produced for the audit, are a sign students aren't adequately supported before hitting high school, and are yet another example that the territory isn't collecting the right data.

3. Indigenous-language education is suffering

Despite publishing numerous commitments, frameworks and action plans on Indigenous language education since the 2010 audit, the report found that the department was slow to implement improvements.

It had no idea where educators were needed, or how many, and did not assess students' language proficiency to see if programs were working.

"The need for swift action in this area is increasingly critical because knowledge of Indigenous languages is declining," the principal auditor, Glenn Wheeler, is quoted as saying in a news release.

The department took four years from the original audit to complete a promised review of Indigenous-language programs, and only developed a standard curriculum in 2018. It still hasn't been rolled out in school districts.

The report acknowledged programs like the Elders in Schools program and cultural training for teachers had made some difference, but it concluded that improvements came too slowly.

4. Education is unequal across the territory

The report asserts over and over that access to quality education is better in Yellowknife and regional centres than in smaller communities.

It acknowledges that the small size and remoteness of many N.W.T. communities make program delivery difficult.

However, the report found the department made no plan to address regional inequalities, and asserted "all efforts it undertook" would reduce this disparity.

Teachers in multi-grade classrooms, common in smaller communities, were also given little support.

What now?

The department has accepted all of the recommendations of the auditor general's report, as it has in the past.

The job of implementing those recommendations falls to R.J. Simpson, the minister of Education, Culture, and Employment, who took over the department from now-Premier Caroline Cochrane three months ago.

Days before the audit's release, the department scheduled a technical briefing on "the first five-year formative evaluation" of its education renewal initiative for Friday.

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