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The admittedly ‘nervous’ Maneesha Johal, top, and classmates Lee-Anna Maharaj, right, and Amanda Ibe, left, prepare for ‘Evil Questions Attacking Ontario.’ (J.P. MOCZULSKI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
The admittedly ‘nervous’ Maneesha Johal, top, and classmates Lee-Anna Maharaj, right, and Amanda Ibe, left, prepare for ‘Evil Questions Attacking Ontario.’ (J.P. MOCZULSKI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The debate over standardized testing in schools is as divisive as ever Add to ...

“It’s getting closer,” teacher Erin Hamilton tells her Grade 6 class at Lougheed Middle School in Brampton, Ont. “It’s becoming a reality.”

“It” is the annual series of tests administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office, or EQAO, which to the kids stands for Evil Questions Attacking Ontario. By the end of next week, they and every other student in Grades 3 and 6 across the province will have spent six hours (over three days) writing provincially mandated assessments of reading, writing and math skills.

Just thinking about what lies ahead makes Ms. Hamilton’s crew tense.

“It’s scary,” says Maneesha Johal, 12. “I’m feeling nervous. It’s what the government sees; they look at how we’ve done.”

And the government is increasingly proud of what it sees, trumpeting a steady rise in the number of children able to meet its standards – and thus adding lustre to Ontario’s reputation in the global race to produce the best and the brightest.

But the nature of standardized testing – a constant concern to teachers and parents across the country, as well the youngsters put under the microscope – is in dispute to such a degree that at least one province is having second thoughts.

Last month, Alberta announced that next year it will begin to phase out its renowned Provincial Achievement Tests (PATs), one of the older and more comprehensive of the exams conducted in Canada.

The move by the nation’s top performer in international rankings has reignited the national debate over standardized testing, which critics accuse of encouraging rote learning and forcing teachers to tailor their efforts “to the test.” In response, supporters argue that there is no better way to ensure that schools perform properly and the education system remains accountable.

Parents are caught in the middle, trying to weigh their child- ren’s angst (and often that of teachers) against a natural curiosity to know just how well schools stack up against each other – an exercise that has caused problems in the United States and Britain, even as it provides real-estate agents with a valuable sales tool.

Stress notwithstanding, testing appears to be popular with the public at large. One survey conducted by the EQAO (which also tests math skills in Grade 9 and literacy in Grade 10) found that 64 per cent of respondents felt it helps to keep the system accountable to taxpayers as well as parents; in a second one, 69 per cent of elementary-school parents said it’s important to know how a child is faring in relation to a provincial standard.

Those who conduct the tests insist that they aren’t intended to pit schools against each other, but the Fraser Institute has no such qualms. Every year, the conservative think tank issues report cards that use results from B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec to rank schools from best to worst.

Peter Cowley, director of the institute’s school performance studies, has co-written all of the report cards and insists that not only are the rankings of public interest, “it is a dereliction of duty” if ministries of education and school boards ignore them.

He has heard all the criticisms – that the rankings are elitist and biased, that they are simply tools used by real-estate agents to market neighbourhoods with “good” schools, that they provide only a narrow measure of student ability, that they stress out students and teachers, that some schools will go to extreme lengths to prep students.

In response, he says, “there should be no pressure and no stress, and no teaching to the test. If teachers are doing their job, then kids should already have the required knowledge.” The tests, he adds, are based on provincial curricula, and written, administered and graded by teachers.

Yet teachers are particularly opposed to testing, which they argue does not promote learning even as it undermines their professionalism. Rather than South Korea, which has fostered a culture of testing and rocketed to the top of the international education charts, they point to Finland, which vies for the lead without putting kids through six hours of grilling.

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