TORONTO — For the provincial government, Ontario's annual standardized tests provide valuable tools to measure student achievement and assess programming, but for Douglas Watson's 15-year-old son, the tests mean nothing but stress and anxiety.
Watson managed to exempt his two children from the Education Quality and Accountability Office testing when they were in Grades 3 and 6, but his older child had to write it when he reached Grade 9.
His son is gifted and has a learning disability, which makes testing in that format very difficult, Watson said.
"He's not the only one. This is a very common pervasive issue with academic anxiety and it can result in things like certainly shutting down, definitely tears," he said.
"For somebody who we worked very hard to set up for academic success, this feels very much like an unnecessary stress against other priorities."
Both the New Democrats and the Liberals have promised to end EQAO testing, at least in its current form, if they are elected next month.
The NDP says it would work collaboratively with educators to determine how random sampling could spot early trends and areas for improvement.
The Liberals say they would work with parents, teachers and education experts to develop a new assessment strategy in order to capture and address the pandemic's impact on learning.
Annie Kidder, the executive director for education advocacy group People for Education, said the EQAO testing should be done in a different way, such as using representative samples.
"Having the data is important," she said in an interview.
"To me, throwing out the baby with the bathwater is not a good idea. But on the other hand, sticking with 'we've always done it this way, and we're just going to keep doing it,' also, I think, doesn't help."
Aside from testing in reading, writing and math, the office could also be used for measuring student well-being and pandemic recovery.
"What isn't clear in Ontario's recovery plan is there isn't a plan for assessment except in reading, writing and math," Kidder said.
"So it is very hard then, in terms of that comprehensive piece, how do we know how kids are doing and whether or not things are improving? And how do we know – if we already know it really amplified inequity – how do we know if we're making a difference going forward?"
The Progressive Conservatives' unpassed budget, which is serving as their election platform, contained scant references to elementary and secondary education, aside from touting its already-announced Learning Recovery Action Plan.
That $600-million plan aims to help students recover from COVID-19 disruptions and includes expanded access to free tutoring.
But four years ago, the Progressive Conservatives campaigned on a promise to "fix the current EQAO testing regime," which PC Leader Doug Ford often tied to criticisms of declining math scores, directed at the previous Liberal government.
When the Tories took office, their first education minister, Lisa Thompson, defended naming a failed Progressive Conservative candidate to a full-time, $140,000-a-year position as chair of the EQAO board of directors, a role that had previously been part time with a $225 per diem.
But she was unable to say how the appointment or the promise itself to "fix" the system would improve students' math scores.
Kidder took note of that.
"You don't change the math scores by changing the standardized test," Kidder said.
The EQAO refused to make anyone available for an interview weeks before the election campaign to talk about what had been fixed within the EQAO system over the past four years, taking into account two years of pandemic disruptions.
A spokeswoman said in a written statement that the tests have been digitized and are now administered online.
"EQAO’s new online assessments allow for a more engaging experience, as students will benefit from interactive content such as multiple-select ... when they provide answer to items," Sophie Auclair said.
"Additionally, to assist students in being more comfortable while they are taking the assessment, we also incorporated optional built-in tools such as virtual breathing exercises, reminders of test-taking strategies and minds-on activities, leading to a more seamless experience for each student."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 10, 2022.
Allison Jones, The Canadian Press