A rise in cheating and irregularities on Ontario's provincewide tests in reading, writing and math has prompted action by the government agency that oversees the system.
The Education Quality and Accountability Office plans to add a checklist for teachers this year, on top of the existing manual, on how to administer the test in the classroom. The checklist will include whether a calculator is allowed on the math test, for example, and inform teachers that they are not to read passages aloud on the reading test. One EQAO official said the instructions will be more explicit and clearer, and should give teachers fewer excuses to say they were not aware of the rules.
"My expectation is any time we can make information clearer, then people will be able to follow it more directly and hopefully there will be fewer irregularities," said Michael Kozlow, director of data and support services at the EQAO.
The EQAO has come under pressure to beef up its measures after revelations in The Globe and Mail that 10 public schools in the province had their marks withheld in the past academic year - twice as many as the previous year - after teachers broke the rules by providing students with questions beforehand, photocopying the previous year's test or providing resource materials such as dictionaries. Disciplinary action has been taken against two teachers at one school board, and others are being investigated elsewhere in the province.
Premier Dalton McGuinty has acknowledged that the standardized testing system may lack the right safeguards to weed out cheating.
But Mr. Kozlow insisted that measures in place to catch those who cheat are more rigorous in Ontario than in other provinces, and the agency is always looking to improve upon them. Still, when it comes to teachers deliberately or unintentionally breaking the rules, the EQAO relies on an honour system. The irregularities at 10 schools, now under investigation, only came to light after tips by parents and administrators.
Officials acknowledge that there's only so much that can be done to catch educators or students who cheat. One education expert said the new checklist is a smart move.
"I'd say it's a modest, positive step, but I'm not sure what more you could do," said John Myers, curriculum instructor from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
The EQAO has to make it very clear what activities constitute cheating and what activities amount to teachers helping students prepare for the tests, Mr. Myers said. However, he said he finds it difficult to believe that teachers would not realize they've crossed the line when they open the cellophane wrappers on tests ahead of time.
At least two of the ten boards - Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board and the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board - confirmed that they have referred the matter to the Ontario College of Teachers, a regulatory and disciplinary body, while they also conduct their own probes. The teachers could face a range of penalties, including suspension, if found guilty by the College.
The EQAO has a handful of schools caught up in irregularities each year, a small percentage of the 5,000 publicly funded schools in the province. In 2009, for example, five schools were investigated, with 154 students. There were an additional 98 students in other schools caught cheating through the EQAO's data-analysis system. Along with the 10 schools and 414 students being investigated this year, there were 179 students who cheated, according to EQAO figures.
Provincial education ministries tend to keep incidents of cheating on standardized tests quiet to protect children, said Todd Rogers, a professor at the University of Alberta's department of education. "If we identify a school, then you are going to get people who don't want their kids to go there," Prof. Rogers said. "That's why you don't see a lot of press in Canada."