Bishop Strachan School in Toronto ranks among the top schools in Ontario, according to results of standardized tests administered by the province's Education Quality and Accountability Office. So it may come as a surprise that, despite receiving accolades for its performance, school administrators are considering whether to continue with the tests.
Although they indicate how the school might stack up against others, administrators began to question whether such data helped to improve student learning. The resounding response from the school's teachers? No.
Teachers put too much emphasis on preparing for the tests, which distracts them from creating deeper learning experiences for children, says Patti MacDonald, Bishop Strachan's Junior School principal.
"Teachers feel students have to perform well on the tests, so they sacrifice what might be rich learning experiences [in favour of] rote learning," says Ms. MacDonald, who urges her teachers not to teach to the tests. The school is consulting with parents about whether the tests have value.
The EQAO tests, which assess students' basic reading, writing and math abilities in Grades 3, 6, 9 and 10, reveal how a school or a class compares with provincial averages, or how a particular student compares with peers. But they don't contain the detail necessary to help a teacher improve his or her skills or identify why a student is struggling with math or reading, educators say.
Private schools are debating whether to continue giving the tests, which were introduced in response to the 1995 Royal Commission on Learning, which recommended the government gather data to compare school performance.
Last year, the Ontario Auditor General recommended the province increase private schools' participation. With the exception of the Grade 10 literacy test, independent schools such as Bishop Strachan are not required to give EQAO tests.
Standardized testing is mandatory for both public and private schools in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Newfoundland.
Test proponents, including the Fraser Institute, say they are a good way to measure whether private school students are learning, and to hold teachers accountable.
In fact, public schools significantly outperformed private schools on the Grade 10 literacy test in 2012 – 82 per cent of public school students passed, while only 73 per cent of their private school peers did.
Teachers' unions and parent groups, on the other hand, say the tests stress out students and promote rote learning techniques that don't foster critical thinking.
Stephen Clarke, head of Upper School at Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ont., says he wouldn't give his students the Grade 10 literacy test if the province did not require it.
"Multiple choice, that's very low-level stuff for us," Mr. Clarke says. "Typically we don't put our kids through those very often because they're not very useful." Ridley College does administer the Grade 3 and 6 tests every two years because they're "always looking for data." But he stresses that they shouldn't be considered a complete picture of how a student is doing. "[The tests] serve a limited purpose."
Like Ridley College, other private schools say they use the tests as a relatively easy – and cheap, since the province administers and marks the tests – way to gather data. They say other assessment methods are more effective in revealing exactly where students are struggling.
Teachers at Bishop Strachan have found the Canadian Achievement Test to be more useful, says Ms. MacDonald. For example, a teacher would be able to see not only that a student was struggling with writing, but that he or she was having difficulty with expository or descriptive writing in particular.
Havergal College, a girls school in Toronto, administers the EQAO tests in Grades 3, 6 and 9 to evaluate its performance provincially, but it relies on other assessments to diagnose where individual students might be struggling. Among them are standardized, sit-down provincial tests such as the Benchmark Assessment, the Writing Assessment and the Numeracy Assessment.
"I find them to be much more powerful," says vice-principal Lois Rowe. "They help us in pinpointing where it is that a student might need assistance."
Ms. Rowe argues that participation in activities outside the classroom, such as math and photography contests, allows students to gain more than the basic skills that are measured in standardized tests.
For example, Havergal's media class created a film that is showing in a youth film festival. "These things have real meaning to us," she explains. "We seek out ways of getting independent assessment of their knowledge and skills."
No test effectively measures higher order skills such as critical thinking or creativity, Ms. Rowe says. The suite of abilities that educators call "21st century skills," including communication and collaboration, are increasingly viewed by educators as important as basic reading and math skills.
Education experts are working on the problem of how to assess deeper learning outcomes; UNESCO and the OECD have begun measuring student well-being, for example.
At Bishop Strachan, teachers emphasize non-academic skills that are important to success but less tangible than reading, writing or math, says Ms. MacDonald.
"One of those is voice," she says.
"Having confidence and having a strong voice. It's less about a specific assignment and more about the culture that is created through learning."