Ontario standardized tests that measure students' math and literacy skills will not happen this year. The decision puts pressure on the province, which over the years has come to use the results to help determine everything from school funding to training for teachers.
Testing scheduled to start on May 25 at English-language public elementary schools has been postponed indefinitely because teachers are working to rule, the Education Quality and Accountability Office, which runs the testing regime, said in a memo on Thursday to the province's school board directors.
It will be the first missed year since the EQAO tests started in the late 1990s and puts quiet but significant pressure on the province. Parents were relieved last week when the union said teachers would withdraw from administrative tasks only. The decision to include overseeing the tests in that category strikes harder at the province, which says the tests are vital and relies on them to determine where to dole out funding to school boards and special-needs students.
The move is a challenge to the province by the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, which was in contract talks that broke of on Monday. The union has engaged in a long power struggle with the province over standardized testing, saying it has little value.
The tests, which take a total of six hours, measure math and literacy skills of students in Grades 3, 6, 9 and 10. Many parents know about them because real estate agents trumpet the high scores of public schools in some neighbourhoods, and the Fraser Institute publishes an annual "school report card" based on the scores. The Ministry of Education and school boards analyze the results in much more detail.
Sam Hammond, president of the ETFO, said on Thursday that instead of preparing children for the tests and overseeing them, teachers will spend their time in the classroom teaching in a less rigid way. He said skipping a year will not only cause no harm but prove the ETFO's contention that the tests are not needed.
"Not teaching for a test looks a lot different than teaching for a test," he said. "There's a lot of creativity, a lot of imagination, a lot of spontaneous teaching that goes on."
The union has been pushing the province for years, as testing and preparing has taken up more class time, to re-evaluate them, he said. "The EQAO testing will come, teachers won't administer it, and there will be no loss to that student development, student interaction," he said.
EQAO chief executive Bruce Rodrigues said the gap in data will be noticed.
"It deprives the students of Ontario, the parents, the schools and boards, and certainly the public," he said.
People can rely too much on the data, and missing a year will not cause "irreparable harm," said Annie Kidder, director of the school advocacy non-profit People for Education. But the numbers are useful, and losing them will be an administrative nuisance for the province, she said.
Special education funding from the ministry is allocated partly based on EQAO results, Ms. Kidder said.
"We all – politicians, the media, the public – love the simple up-good, down-bad graph as a measure of the whole education system, which is very problematic," she said. "But they're also very useful because … you can look at demographic factors. You can look at who is struggling based on socioeconomic status."
In a news conference last week, Education Minister Liz Sandals said boards get funding boosts partly based on the scores.
"One of the ways that we use EQAO test results as a ministry is, we actually look at the schools where there's a pattern of struggling over the years, and we actually provide extra direct funding to the schools that are struggling the most," she said.
Mr. Rodrigues said children in Grade 3 will particularly lose out. If they miss the test, the province won't know their strengths and weaknesses, as a group, until they're first tested in Grade 6 after a "pretty large gap," he said. "Our research shows that when we have the information, we need to intervene early," he said.
The province spent $4-million on math training for teachers last year after EQAO results identified math as a problem area. The ministry also studies groups of children who fail to meet testing targets in Grade 3 but pass in Grade 6 to see what worked.
Recently, for example, it found that children struggling with reading and writing had done better when asked to organize their thoughts in a graph or chart, laying out analysis of passages from books visually.
A spokeswoman from the Ministry of Education said testing is helping the province achieve demonstrably better results, halving in the past decade the number of schools where most students were not meeting standards.
Aside from months of classroom preparation, the province has also already spent nearly $900,000 to print test materials, said an EQAO spokeswoman.
The ETFO says the EQAO uses up classroom time and money, pointing to an EQAO annual report from 2011-12 that showed $30-million for that year's testing.
Charles Pascal, a former chair of EQAO who has proposed changes to the testing regime, said calling off the test "in an ad hoc way without a larger plan is not helpful."