Saturday, November 8, 2014

The (False?) Pressure of Standardized Tests

Yesterday, I was honoured to be able to speak with most of the math teachers in my board about the fun things I've been doing with BYOD. I anticipated a number of questions - many of the same questions I wondered about before starting BYOD: how do the students respond to it? How do I assess the students' work? What do the parents think? Is my administration supportive? What happens when students fall behind? 

But another question came up that I didn't anticipate: how does this method of teaching affect the students' EQAO test results? Before this semester, I had never given it much thought. And if I may be honest, I'm a little worried.


In Ontario, all students are given standardized tests on reading, writing and mathematics in grades 3 & 6mathematics only in grade 9, and reading and writing in grade 10. These tests are all regulated by the province's Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO); the math test results do not count toward the students' success in school - they are just for tracking how well Ontario's students are doing.

However, the results do contribute to the reputation of the school. Every year, the Fraser Institute ranks all Ontario schools based mostly on our standardized test results.

In informal settings, we, as teachers, are told to not worry about the results of the tests - that the pressure to have the students do well on a set curriculum is a "false pressure."

If teachers are to worry, we should worry instead about reaching every student, challenging them at their level and engaging them as best we can, not teaching to the test so we can post the highest numbers. We want them to enjoy the process of learning and make progress through the semester. Posting high scores on the test, while nice to achieve, should not be our goal.

That's all well and good to say, but consider the test results: last year, my school ranked 693 out of 740 schools. We are in the bottom 7% of the province. Knowing that, what is your initial impression of my school? What does that say about our students? Our teachers? 

Fairly or unfairly, how my students perform on the EQAO test will result in me being judged. 

True or False?

Every year, our entire teaching staff sits down to craft and refine our School Improvement Plan - setting goals for the year and reviewing past goals. One of the factors we look at in detail - because all the statistics are available - are the grade 9 EQAO math test results. Not just of the past year, but in the past five years or so. My students (and I) will be compared to all the grade 9 math students (and teachers) over that time period. 

All teachers in the school examining how my students performed on the test - is that a false pressure?

Every year our board develops practice tests, provides all the materials for these practice tests and pays to bring in supply teachers so we can go through the tests and provide feedback. In Learning Cycles professional development - also provided by the board - we pour over exemplars and rubrics to see "what makes a good EQAO answer."

The board clearly spending money on efforts to get the students to perform better - is that a false pressure?

Earlier in the school year, we had some PLC (professional learning community) time set aside in advance of a staff meeting. Members of our school's math department got together to look at the new features of the EQAO portal, which provides more in-depth data on how our students performed. Yes, it's great to be able to see data on our students, but I question whether we need an external exam to tell us what any teacher could probably tell you about her class after spending 90 hours with them.

The math department taking time to review student-by-student who improved and who fell short - is that a false pressure?

And then finally yesterday, when teachers were presented with a new method of conducting their math class, the question was asked of me: how will this affect the students' EQAO results? To be honest, I don't know. I know my students enjoy coming to my class, they enjoy learning this way, stress levels are down and they are getting better at thinking outside the box and challenging themselves. Will this translate into high scores on a very traditional pen-and-paper test?

My methods being judged by the results on a test - is that a false pressure?

I am trying my best to do what I feel is right in my classroom, and to provide for my students the base that I feel they will need to be successful throughout high school and beyond. But every time I have doubts about doing something exciting and new - like the Pumpkin Time Bomb, or the Snack Chip Comparison, or the Ratio Photo Challenge, or even this whole BYOD thing - I have to go with my gut and reassure myself that the pressure to stick to teaching to the test is indeed a false pressure. We'll just have to see what comes of it.


  1. Hi Heather,

    I am really thankful that you shared this post on the pressure teachers feel as a result of government exams. I have been reflecting on the same subject as I have recently moved to high school.  In my grade 10 courses, the students take a test at the end of the semester that is worth 20% of their mark.  That fact has coloured the pace and form at which I teach.  You have reminded me that it is more important to teach in the manner I believe in ... over simply covering concepts.  I know that in that way the learning is much greater and is best for the students. 


    1. Thanks, Sean. I had trouble writing this because I'm often so torn, and I think it would be much harder for me if our tests contributed to the students' marks like yours do. I recently read that while performance goals - like doing well on tests - did indeed work for getting students to "show well," they did little for teaching students resilience and grit... traits that students will need when attacking the next level of material. I have to believe that those traits are more important than our provincial standing...

  2. Heather, I could totally connect to this post because I felt the same way a couple of years ago after I taught Grade 6. I thought to myself, what if our results fall? Will people blame me for trying something new and it not working? And in all honesty, I worried until I found out the results, and then even when I found out that we didn't fall, I still wondered if we could have done better. But the bottom line is, I'm not the only teacher that impacts on these results. This is not a one year test. If all that we think about is the test, what impact that have on student experiences during that Grade _____ year? I do think though that there's value in always thinking about what we do, why we do it, and how we can improve. If the test makes us consider our teaching practices more, maybe that's a good thing. I'd just hope that we could do this without the test.


  3. S true about your post. I teach French Immersion for Grade 6 students. Students take French, Social Studies, Science, arts and Gym. I work very closely with my English colleagues to align the content to the language and students will se continuity. Our Math scores fluctuate, like you said what matters that students are engaged in learning and enjoy school and become critical thinkiers.


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