Testing the teachers

When the government needs someone to blame

illustration of a graduate student pointing at a moderator and testing centre with a question mark above her head.

The Ford government is making good on its misguided 2018 announcement to require that all new teachers pass a mandatory math test before they can teach in Ontario. Of course, given the provisions of the Ontario Mobility Act, teachers certified in another province will not need to meet any such certification requirement: under the terms of the act, professionals certified elsewhere in Canada are considered to have met the requirements for certification in Ontario.

The Ministry of Education issued a memorandum on August 21, 2019, regarding the introduction of a Mathematics Proficiency Test for new teachers. On August 20, 2019, two regulations were filed: the Proficiency in Mathematics regulation requires that new applicants to the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) must successfully pass a mathematics proficiency test if their application for registration is completed on or after March 31, 2020, and the Objects of the Office regulation mandates the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) to develop the test.

What we know about Ontario’s new teacher proficiency test
Ontario Faculties of Education will administer the test in accordance with instructions provided by EQAO. At least 70 per cent of the test will be math content and the remainder pedagogy. Candidates will require a mark of 70 per cent or higher in each of the math content and pedagogy sections to successfully pass the test.

The math questions will include concepts taught in both the elementary and secondary Grades 3 through 11. The pedagogical questions will focus on teachers’ foundational understanding of math assessment, planning, and facilitating student learning specific to mathematics, even if the teacher candidate is not obtaining math qualifications.

EQAO will mark the multiple choice test and provide the result to the person who took it, and forward the names of successful candidates to the OCT. EQAO will also conduct research and collect information relating to the candidate’s confidence and proficiency in mathematics. EQAO is expected to develop online preparation, support materials and practice tests for teacher candidates.

There will be no fee to write the test on the first attempt for those who must pass the test to register with the OCT. A fee will be required for subsequent and/or voluntary attempts. There is no limit on the number of times a person may take the mathematics test.

What is wrong with the test
The new math proficiency test is concerning for a variety of reasons. This kind of across-the-board testing of all teachers, when a majority of them will never teach math, will not impact secondary students’ math outcomes. Without mutual agreement, secondary school teachers can only be assigned to teach in their areas of qualification. There is the potential to have an excellent art, geography or history teacher not qualified to teach in Ontario because they do not pass a math test, a discipline that they would never teach. The regulation states that this test will include Grades 3–11 curriculum content and pedagogy. It is unreasonable and unnecessary for any teacher candidate to be tested in math content and pedagogy beyond the scope of their division levels.

Questions remain about the implementation and delivery of the test. How will EQAO manage to develop, pilot and implement a multiple-choice test by March 31, 2020 that appropriately screens a teacher candidate’s curricular and pedagogical knowledge? What is the fee for those who fail and must re-take the test? And does this open the door to further teacher testing for new and existing teachers?

Also disconcerting is the option for currently certified teachers to take voluntarily this standardized math test administered through EQAO. Some OSSTF/FEESO members may be tempted to take the test voluntarily as an avenue to leadership positions. There would be little to prevent employers to view those with successful completion of the EQAO math proficiency test as preferred or better suited for transfer or promotion to positions of added responsibility. There is also the potential for administrators to coach teachers into taking the math proficiency test ‘voluntarily’ during an Annual Learning Plan or Teacher Performance Appraisal process. While it is not clear whether the actual score on the test will be communicated to anyone other than the person who takes it, there will be the temptation to request test scores when making hiring decisions.

There are additional considerations making a mandatory, high-stakes proficiency test for OCT certification requirement impractical and a waste of time and resources that could be better spent elsewhere in the education system. First, Ontario students do not have an achievement in math problem. Secondly, there is little empirical evidence that standardized teacher tests have a positive correlation to teaching effectiveness or student achievement. Finally, any proficiency assessment should be an integral part of their teacher education program with opportunities for support as needed.

What achievement in math problem?
In 2015, 540,000 15-year-old students in 72 countries participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) testing. PISA 2018 Math Scores will not be available until December, 2019. The Canadian report indicates that after a decline in math between 2003 and 2012, the performance of Ontario students remained stable over the 2012 to 2015 period. Students in Canada scored well above the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average and were outperformed by students in only one country in reading and six in mathematics among the 72 countries that participated in PISA 2015. Among the provinces, students in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia performed above the OECD average in both reading and mathematics. Canadian students had an average score of 516 in mathematics, well above the OECD average of 493 and 490, respectively. As a province, Ontario ranked 4th behind BC, Alberta and Quebec. The Ford government has yet to explain how testing secondary school teachers who will not be qualified to teach math can have any impact on math scores, locally or globally.

Lack of evidence that standardized tests can predict teacher efficacy or student success
EQAO has been designated as the developer, marker and reporter of the math proficiency test. Ironically, EQAO released an extensive literature review in August 2019 which shows that the empirical evidence regarding the connection between teacher testing and student outcomes is weak at best. In their review, EQAO concludes that “Current research demonstrates that standardized teacher tests are not linked with a level of performance consistency that justifies their widespread implementation at this time,” and that the academic literature around teacher testing suggests that the fundamental goal of these politicized tests are not often met.

Studies that find that teacher competency test scores are positively related to student outcomes in most cases the correlation to be weak and not universal. EQAO’s review also finds that teacher competency test scores are much less likely to predict student outcomes. Teaching experience, college/university education grade, the number of post-secondary math courses and the number of professional math courses taken for teacher certification are all better predictors of positive student outcomes in math.

Standardized proficiency tests contribute to equity issues for educators just as they do for students. A range of research studies found that teacher competency testing has an impact on the diversity of the teaching population as built in biases against marginalized groups have an impact on who passes the test. In the US, one study found that black and Hispanic teacher candidates were much more likely to fail the standardized tests than their white peers, as just one example.

Given the problematic nature of standardized proficiency tests as an entry requirement into the teaching profession, the futility of this approach to measuring teacher efficacy, and that such tests may do more harm than good, OSSTF/FEESO is cautioning members not to take the test on a voluntary basis.

About Peter Bates
Peter Bates is an Executive Assistant working in the Educational Services Department at OSSTF/FEESO Provincial Office.

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