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Sum perspective: On the value of Ontario’s standardized math tests

Faculty of Education experts offer context on latest EQAO results

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The numbers are in from Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) on the latest cycle of academic testing across the province. The headline in a September 21 Toronto Star article offers a bleak assessment: Math results dismal in Greater Toronto school boards.

The 2015-2016 EQAO scores for Grade 6 students suggest up to half of them are not meeting provincial standards in math. The data indicates achievement in math is at its lowest level since 2001.

Research supports our assumption that if you fall behind in math early, you will always be behind. Naturally, these results are raising some tough questions. Is there a problem with the curriculum? Are the appropriate teaching strategies in place to best support elementary students? What are the broader implications for the future Canadian economy if children are struggling with math at such a young age?

Two researchers with the Faculty of Education at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) say as Ontarians and school boards pore over the EQAO results, we should also take a moment to consider the bigger picture.

Ann LeSage, PhD, and Ami Mamolo, PhD are experts in math ‘pedagogies’ – the methods used in the practice of teaching an academic subject like math.  They offer some insights and questions to consider when interpreting trends and results in EQAO data. Both suggest we begin to shift our focus away from how to increase test scores, in favour of emphasizing the value of understanding and enjoying mathematics.

  • Why the EQAO results may not be so simple to interpret

    “There are complex, multifaceted reasons why individuals struggle with mathematics and its applications to various professional fields, social trends and personal situations,” says Dr. Mamolo. “But tests, generally, assess a student’s test-taking abilities – not their math abilities. As a society, we need to emphasize the value of understanding mathematics, rather than just the value doing well on tests.”

    “We might also want to consider how we use the assessment data,” says Dr. LeSage. “Given the EQAO test changes annually, is comparing results over time really a valid indicator of student achievement?”  

  • EQAO questions are standard, but what about the scoring?

    Media often focus on the results of EQAO tests with little attention to the way each test is assessed. In fact, the assessment process can be as important as the result – who is doing the scoring, what ‘training’ or preparation do they receive, and how do they reliably and consistently assess the diverse set of possible (correct) student solutions?

    “Conversations I’ve seen in the news around EQAO scores generally do not include consideration of the assessment process,” says Dr. Mamolo. “If we want to understand what the scores and trends mean, we need to try and appreciate them in context. To do so includes asking critical questions, such as about how the tests are scored and by whom. If a student produces a correct solution that is different from the expected solution, how might that solution be valued or graded by assessors with different mathematical priorities or understandings?”

  • Can some of the questions be problematic?

    What questions are being asked of students and do these questions make sense in each student’s world?

    “I recall hearing from a teacher this summer about trying to motivate the relevance of a standard test question to her students,” says Dr. Mamolo. “The question was about the length of a shadow cast from a tree. This is a very typical math question; however, the students responding to this question lived in the tundra – where there are no trees. Context is important when understanding, solving and applying mathematics, and too often, the context provided in questions is so irrelevant that it makes the question less about mathematics and seemingly more about deciphering the ‘rules of the test-taking game’.”

  • Improving societal attitudes about math begins at home

    Are there ways we make test-taking harder than it needs to be? What questions are students answering well and what can this tell us about their future successes?

    “Improving mathematics understanding and mathematics achievement are not the same things, though both are important” says Dr. Mamolo. “Achievement will help you get through school; while understanding will help you get through life. It’s important to look beyond just the ‘final score’ and analyze what aspects of students’ work were well done, what could be improved, and what these details can tell us about students’ future trajectories.” 

    The challenge in raising both achievement and understanding does not just lie in schools – the broader community needs to be on board. It’s socially ‘cool’ to be bad at math, and pretty common to hear boasts of “I hate math” or “I can’t do math”. Society seems to accept this as almost normal. But if someone said “I can’t read” the reaction would be pretty different.

    “Children often spend a lot of time with books, with parents reinforcing positive experiences with reading (story time), yet there is no real parallel with ‘math time’,” says Dr. Mamolo. “If we don’t spend time doing the thing, how do we expect to be good at it? And if parents pass down any anxieties they have about math to their children, then their kids’ anxieties are reinforced. And then math, and anything related to math in school, becomes all the more challenging.”

    “This is particularly concerning in light of recent research citing significant correlations between early math understanding and future academic success,” adds Dr. LeSage. “In fact, early math skills have been shown to be stronger predictors of later academic achievement than early reading skills1. As such, children’s home experiences, particularly their early experiences, play an important role in developing children’s understanding and confidence in math.”

    1 Claessens, Duncan, & Engel, 2009; Duncan, et al., 2007; Levine, et al., 2010; Romano, Babchishin, & Kohen, 2010; Watts, Duncan, Siegler & Davis-Kean, 2014

  • What can we do to help children feel more confident in their math skills and test-taking skills?

    “Parents, teachers and caregivers can nurture positive math dispositions in their children (and themselves) by making math a part of their daily activities and conversations,” recommends Dr. LeSage. “For example, think about the math that is involved when we play games or sports, when we make a meal, bake treats, or create art. Math is everywhere. Adults simply need to help children notice the math, see its applications and then begin to talk to children about it.” 

    Dr. LeSage suggests that adults, who enjoy reading books with their children, consider including books that explore math concepts.

    “Parents should ask their child’s teacher, school or public librarian for book suggestions. I have a huge collection of children’s books that directly or indirectly explore various math concepts, and I use them regularly in my teaching at the Faculty of Education.”

    Mamolo and LeSage encourage Ontarians to consider the many questions being asked concerning the EQAO test results. What other questions could or should be asked? And, how can we really understand EQAO results in the context of our children’s knowledge?

To arrange for an interview, please contact:

Bryan Oliver
Communications and Marketing
University of Ontario Institute of Technology
905.721.8668 ext. 6709
bryan.oliver@uoit.ca

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