Ten public schools in Ontario have been investigated for cheating and irregularities on last year's provincewide tests in reading, writing and mathematics, calling into question a key tool that influences education policy in Canada and the United States.
The government agency that oversees the tests has withheld scores for all 10 schools following completion of its probe into all but one. Educators broke the rules by either providing students with questions beforehand, photocopying the previous year's test, handing back answers to correct, or providing resource materials such as dictionaries.
Some cheated, others inadvertently broke the rules, said Marie Parsons, chief assessment officer at the Education Quality and Accountability Office, which learned of the problems from parents or school officials. She said the Ontario College of Teachers has launched its own investigation into at least one school.
The EQAO's probe involved only a tiny number of the province's 5,000 secondary and elementary public schools. But education experts say it has reignited debate over the widespread use of standardized testing across Canada and the United States.
"Unfortunately, schools are a microcosm of the real world," said Todd Rogers, an education professor at the University of Alberta. "We've got people and educational personnel who, for whatever reason, decide they're going to do something that isn't according to what is allowed, and we get these problems."
Educators who favour standardized tests say they provide an important measure of a school's performance and keep teachers and administrators accountable. But many teachers argue they face enormous pressure to improve test scores, forcing them to abandon other elements of a balanced curriculum.
"When we end up measuring who is good at doing tests, then you're going to have problems with cheating," said Doug Jolliffe, President of the Ontario Secondary School Teacher's Federation's Toronto chapter.
In the United States, where poor test results can cause a school to lose students under the No Child Left Behind policy, incidents of cheating are on the rise. Georgia education officials ordered investigations last February at 191 schools across the state where they had found evidence of tampering on answer sheets for a test.
Critics say Ontario has also become overly obsessed with test scores. The pressure begins at the top, with Premier Dalton McGuinty. His goal is to have 75 per cent of students reach the provincial standard on reading, writing and math.
"Teachers are teaching to the test in order to bring about the result the government wants," said New Democrat education critic Rosario Marchese.
St. Peter Catholic Secondary School in Peterborough is one of the 10 schools probed by the EQAO. A teacher gave Grade 9 students advance copies of three questions that appeared on the academic math test administered last January, according to documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.
The unidentified teacher did not realize he wasn't supposed to have access to the questions before the test date, explained John Mackle, director of education of the Peterborough Victoria Northumberland and Clarington Catholic District School Board.
"As far as we're concerned, one staff member made the mistake," he said. "I don't think there was any malice in it."
The tests are delivered to schools a few days before students write them, sealed in cellophane wrappers. The instructions state clearly that the tests must not be opened before the test date. The principal is in charge of storing and protecting the tests.
Mr. Mackle sent a letter on Sept. 10 to parents and the 80 students who wrote the Grade 9 academic math test last January, notifying them that their marks are being withheld.
"This will have no impact on the students' academic achievement at St. Peter CSS or the students' progress toward graduation," the letter says.
Marguerite Jackson, the EQAO's chief executive officer, said the rules have to be followed so that every child has a fair chance.
"I don't like it when there are these individual situations, but when you've got this many people and this diverse a population, there are going to be times when we have to step back and say, 'that was not appropriate,'" she said in an interview. In terms of the credibility of the data, she added, "we have to have confidence that it is a reasonable representation of a child's work."
The Education Quality and Accountability Office has withheld results for standardized tests written last year for 10 schools in Ontario because of cheating or irregularities. But this is not the first time there have been problems.
June, 2009: A disciplinary panel at the Ontario College of Teachers suspends a now-retired principal with the Toronto District School Board for 10 months for cheating. The principal encouraged teachers to "do what they could" to ensure good test scores on the Grades 3 and 6 tests written in 2006, including opening sealed tests and photocopying them, according to a decision summary posted on the college's website. The principal retired in 2006, three years before she was suspended.
September, 2007: The college's disciplinary panel retroactively suspends a retired principal with the Hastings and Prince Edward District School Board for 10 months for cheating. The principal reviewed unsealed booklets for secondary students who wrote the literacy test in 2003 and arranged to have students finish tests they had not completed in the allotted time. Her "tampering with test booklets amounted to cheating," the panel said.
However, the EQAO said the irregularities in the administration of the test did not lead to a different "pass/fail result" for any of the unidentified school's students, according to a decision summary.
October, 2001: The EQAO is forced to cancel its Grade 10 literary test after it is stolen and posted on the Internet. It costs the province about $7-million to make up a new test and reschedule it.