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Standardized education tests get a star
Prof touts their precise analysis of student needs

Parents, educators urged to get over score phobia

The Toronto Star, LOUISE BROWN, EDUCATION REPORTER, Oct. 19, 2005

They've been blasted by teachers, boycotted by kids and brandished by real estate agents trying to rank neighbourhoods by school.

But eight years after standardized tests hit Ontario, there is mounting proof the scores — including the latest batch due today — are providing schools with a power tool to pinpoint how to help children learn, says Premier Dalton McGuinty's special adviser on education.

Education Professor Michael Fullan says schools have gone from viewing test scores as a blunt ranking instrument back when they were launched in 1997, to using them as a precise instrument to gauge just what programs help children improve.

"We now know how not to use test scores — and that's to rank schools like apples and oranges with no context, all over the map," said Fullan, who will speak tonight on the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tests and other learning tools at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, as part of the R.W.B. Jackson lecture series at 7 p.m.

"When the EQAO tests first came out, all it did was tell you too late what went wrong," said Fullan in an interview last night.

"Now we're using them in many boards across the province to find out where individual students are in their learning, and work with them individually and in small groups to improve.

"We're also using EQAO scores to find schools that face similar challenges, often poverty levels, and measure which ones are doing well to overcome these challenges and see what they're doing right."

Fullan cites many schools across York Region that have used EQAO to boost scores, as well as a family of schools in Scarborough that has managed to hike reading and writing by more than five percentage points in one year, just by focusing on teacher training and student help, using EQAO scores as the yardstick.

"We've got schools across Ontario now that are dying to get their test scores Wednesday, rather than dreading them."

Charles Pascal is the new chair of the EQAO, and he says parents, too, must get past their test phobia and start using the scores to figure out where their children need help.

"I don't like using tests to rank schools — at best, it's useless and at worst, it's threatening. Test scores mean nothing without the demographic context," said Pascal, a former deputy minister of education in Ontario and current executive director of the Atkinson Charitable Foundation.

"But there's all sorts of good evidence now that schools are using the data to design some very innovative ways to help kids improve," said Pascal. "To make progress in anything, whether it's reading or improving your golf swing, you have to start by gathering information on how you're doing."

Teachers' federations still have concerns about province-wide testing — "especially when real estate vendors put so much emphasis on a one-week snapshot of student learning," warns Emily Noble, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario.

"Nothing in these tests looks at citizenship, artistic ability or a healthy body. The best way to know about the whole child is to go in and have a conversation with the teacher," said Noble in an interview yesterday.

"But since the tests are here to stay, we're pleased Charles Pascal wants them to be seen as just one of several diagnostic tools to assist programming."

With a personal interest in the scores of his own daughter's Toronto grade school, Charles Pascal said today's results reflect growing comfort with testing by educators from classroom teachers to the province's new Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat.

"So now we need parents to understand what these scores say about how their child's school is doing over time — not compared to the school down the street, which may face very different challenges," he said.