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Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

More accountability on school testing results

First published: October 30, 2008

With the federal election over, it is time to return to local issues left behind during those frantic days. In particular, the testing scores for the local school boards were released with very little attention, as it is something that cannot be ignored.

The Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board was below the provincial average on the standardized tests, while the Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board posted several above average scores.

The public school board was one per cent down in reading in Grades 3 and 6, but six per cent down in Grade 6 math. The board pointed to its Grade 9 results where it achieved 37 per cent of students performing above standards levels. The Catholic school board was above average in reading, writing and math in Grades 3 and 6, with Grade 9 math scores four per cent above the provincial average.

Kaja Havelka, superintendent of teaching and learning at the public school board, worked hard to put a positive spin on the results, but there was no way to hide her disappointment.

“We were hoping to have higher,” she said in an interview.

The question is: Why weren’t the results higher?

The Education and Accountability Office (EQAO) was formed in 1996 by former Premier Mike Harris to bring about new levels of excellence in classrooms across Ontario. Local school boards have delivered mediocre results for the past five years, barely making any noticeable improvements to test results across the local system. Enough is enough. The scores for the public school board are unacceptable and somebody’s head should role.

What is most disturbing is the lack of outrage by school board trustees. The front pages of local news media should be filled with huge headlines as trustees decry these results. Instead, there is not a peep.

Beyond this, parents should be in an uproar. For years, the public school board has made excuses for their poor performance; lulling parents into believing results in the mid-60s were acceptable. It was clear some trustees supported these middling scores. Only a year ago, former board chairperson Angela Lloyd condemned the testing.

“This ranking of schools is totally unproductive,” she said in an interview in February 2007.

With five years of results, all hovering at or below provincial averages, this cannot be tolerated. As taxpayers and parents, we cannot accept this. Certainly, over the first few years of testing, schools needed to develop plans and implement them. But, the EQAO has existed for more than 12 years. This is not something sprung on the board, trustees or educators. With this amount of time passed, we should be seeing far greater results.

Schools are left mostly to themselves for developing and implementing plans, while the board provides money for release time and staffing to assist teachers and principals. And the results can be impressive. Take for example, Burnham Public School in Cobourg. The Grade 3 results for reading this year was 79 per cent, writing 85 per cent and mathematics a whopping 97 per cent. For Grade 6 students, it was 94 per cent for reading and writing, while it hit 97 per cent for math. Only five years ago, the Grade 6 math marks were hovering around 59 per cent.

No doubt there are many other schools that share this level of success and they should be applauded, along with the dedicated teachers who succeeded as individual classrooms. But the bottom line is this: it is not enough to make a statistical difference across the board. It seems something is fundamentally wrong. No matter what programs exist or action plans are being followed, it is not working. Director of Education Sylvia Terpstra must be held fully accountable for the prolonged lack of achievement.

What is even more hair-raising is the complete lack of advocacy by trustees. So many of the programs operated by the board do not have such concrete tools for measuring results. And, nothing could be more important than ensuring all students have the highest levels of achievement in reading, writing and math. Frankly, there some staff at the top level of the board need to be fired. It would send a clear message about how serious this failure has become and what goals need to be reached. And, it would reassure parents that there is a zero tolerance for any lack of success.

Yes, there are critics to standardize testing. Some say there are issues of security, timelines and the validity of the tests. The EQAO spent about $32 million in 2006- 2007 fiscal year, which could easily pay for more teachers or classroom materials. But the biggest and most valid criticism is that standardize testing does not assure accountability. And, as we have seen, some trustees, like Angela Lloyd, are not prepared to act based on the results.

It is up to parents and parent council to demand accountability. Every parent should go to the EQAO web site and find the school results, reading over each report carefully. Armed with this information, parents can advocate through their parent council requiring a marked improvement in results. As with the Burnham example, a co-ordinated effort by staff and the principal can net a vast difference.

But that cannot be all. School board trustees must speak out. The silence can only be taken as indifference or ignorance. None of these last test results should be taken lightly. There must be a full review and a new action plan with marked increases. It is time for the board to move beyond the lip service and pathetic spin provided to the media. Trustees have two years to prove they can address the situation or they should be turfed. And they must show the fortitude to make the necessary changes in staff, as well.

If they attacked this problem with the same zeal as trustee Gordon Gilchrist’s racism charges, then we would have the best results in the province. And, what could be more important.

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