Politics
Ontario focuses on below-average students: Sandals

Credits: Dave ThomasToronto Sun/QMI Agency

ANTONELLA ARTUSO | QMI AGENCY

TORONTO -- Children who fail to achieve the provincial standard in testing have the Ontario government's full attention, newly sworn-in Education Minister Liz Sandals says.

A Fraser Institute Report Card on Ontario's Elementary Schools, as reported by QMI Agency, concluded that about 28% of the province's schools need more attention as they return results below provincial standards.

Sandals said in a statement that the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tests are not meant to be used to rank schools, but rather as a tool for examining individual, board and provincial data.

"In Ontario, 70% of students are now achieving the provincial standard in Grades 3 and 6 combined, up sixteen percentage points compared to 2002-03," Sandals said. "The Ministry of Education continues to work in partnership with all school boards to raise achievement results overall and close gaps for groups of students who are not achieving the provincial standard."

Student Achievement Officers (SAOs) work in regional teams across the province to improve outcomes, and the education ministry facilitates "extensive professional learning" to help teachers bring new knowledge and skills to their classroom instruction, Sandals said.

"We're very proud of the work students, teachers and administrators have done to improve student achievement," Sandals said.

Opposition education critics at Queen's Park point to cracks in the system, Tory MPP Lisa MacLeod, who recently released an education white paper which recommended that standardized testing be expanded to include science and technology, said the EQAO tests expose stagnate results.

"What we found, and referenced this in our white paper, is about 25% of our students are just not making the grade," MacLeod said. "And that has been consistent over the past couple of years. So it does highlight an issue."

Preparing Students for the Challenges of the 21st Century, which is a discussion paper and not a campaign platform, states the education system needs to focus more on literacy, numeracy and science.

The Tories say they would identify schools where students fail to meet the provincewide test standard -- a "B" grade -- and invest in those schools to improve performance.

MacLeod said EQAO testing remains an important part of assessing the education system and its pupils, and she's concerned that it could become a bargaining chip in the current battle between teacher unions and the Ontario government over Bill 115 and imposed contracts.

It might be tempting for new Premier Kathleen Wynne, who is trying to bring extracurriculars back to elementary and secondary schools, to eliminate EQAO testing as a "carrot" to appease teachers, although there has been no suggestion publicly that that's the government's plan.

"It is well known that the unions, the teacher unions of Ontario, do not support EQAO. They think that the best way to save money in the education system and redirect (savings to) salary and benefits is by closing it off and not having any standards whatsoever," MacLeod said. "We in the Ontario PC Party are completely on the other side of that."

NDP MPP Peter Tabuns said standardized testing is not "a bad idea" but he believes that random testing, as is done in France and Ireland, is a more cost-effective option with equally reliable results.
In Ontario, the goal is to test all students although there are exemptions for those whose special accommodation needs cannot be met.

"We may be spending too much on testing and we could use that money in the classroom," Tabuns said. "The other concern is if teachers (are) spending all their time trying to make sure that kids pass these standardized tests, it reduces the time they have to engage with students and actually develop them as individuals."

For schools that perform poorly, Tabuns said a common dominator is often unemployment and poverty in the communities served.

Children who live in households where parents are struggling to make ends meet can suffer from that anxiety and stress.

Making sure that adults have well-paying jobs and other supports would be reflected in their children's test scores, Tabuns predicted.

Tabuns said he is worried that the war over the Ontario Liberals' Bill 115, which teachers fought as an attack on their collective bargaining rights, could make it harder to improve overall student performance in the years ahead.

"Starting a conflict in the schools is not going to help students," Tabuns said, blaming the Ontario Liberals for the battle. "And if you demoralize a workforce you are not going to have as good an outcome. It's as simple as that."

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