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Archive for December, 2017

Canada’s most populous province aspires to education leadership and tends to exert influence far beyond our coast-to-coast provincial school systems. That is why the latest Ontario student assessment initiative, A Learning Province, is worth tracking and deserves much closer scrutiny. It was officially launched in September of 2017, in the wake of a well-publicized decline in provincial Math test scores and cleverly packaged as a plan to address wider professional concerns about testing and accountability.

Declining Math test scores among public elementary school students in Ontario were big news in late August 2017 for one one good reason- the Ontario Ministry’s much-touted $60-million “renewed math strategy” completely bombed when it came to alieviating the problem. On the latest round of  provincial standardized tests — conducted by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO)only half of Grade 6 students met the provincial standard in math, unchanged from the previous year. In 2013, about 57 per cent of Grade 6 students met the standard  Among Grade 3 students, 62 per cent met the provincial standard in math, a decrease of one percentage point since last year.

The Ontario government’s response, championed by Premier Kathleen Wynne and Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, was not only designed to change the channel, but to initiate a “student assessment review” targeting the messenger, the EQAO, and attempting to chip away at its hard-won credibility, built up over the past twenty years. While the announcement conveyed the impression of “open and authentic” consultation, the Discussion Paper made it crystal clear that the provincial agency charged with ensuring educational accountability was now under the microscope.  Reading the paper and digesting the EQAO survey questions, it becomes obvious that the provincial tests are now on trial themselves, and being assessed on criteria well outside their current mandate.

Ontario’s provincial testing regime should be fair game when it comes to public scrutiny. When spending ballooned to $50 million a year in the late 1990s, taxpayers had a right to be concerned. Since 2010, EQAO costs have hovered around $34 million or $17 per student, the credibility of the test results remain widely accepted, and the testing model continues to be free of interference or manipulation.  It’s working the way it was intended — to provide a regular, reasonably reliable measure of student competencies in literacy and numeracy.

The EQAO is far from perfect, but is still considered the ‘gold standard’ right across Canada.  It has succeeded in providing much greater transparency, but — like other such testing regimes – has not nudged education departments far enough in the direction of improving teacher specialist qualifications or changing the curriculum to secure better student results.  The Grade 10 Literacy Test remains an embarrassment. In May 2010, the EQAO report, for example, revealed that hundreds of students who failed the 2006 test were simply moved along trough the system without passing that graduation standard. Consistently, about 19 to 24 per cent of all students fall short of acceptable literacy, and 56 per cent of all Applied students, yet graduation rates have risen from 68% to 86% province-wide.

The Ontario Ministry is now ‘monkeying around’ with the EQAO and seems inclined toward either neutering the agency to weaken student performance transparency or broadening its mandate to include assessing students for “social and emotional learning’ (SEL), formerly termed “non-cognitive learning.”  The “Independent Review of Assessment and Reporting” is being supervised by some familiar Ontario education names, including the usual past and present OISE insiders, Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves, and Carol Campbell.  It’s essentially the same Ontario-focused group, minus Dr. Avis Glaze, that populates the International Education Panel of Advisors in Scotland attempting to rescue the Scottish National Party’s faltering “Excellence for All” education reforms.

The published mandate of the Student Assessment Review gives it all away in a few critical passages.  Most of the questions focus on EQAO testing and accountability and approach the tests through a “student well-being” and “diversity” lens.  An “evidence-informed” review of the current model of assessment and reporting is promised, but it’s nowhere to be found in the discussion paper. Instead, we are treated to selected excerpts from official Ontario policy documents, all supporting the current political agenda, espoused in the 2014 document, Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario. The familiar four pillars, achieving excellence, ensuing equity, promoting well-being, and enhancing public confidence are repeated as secular articles of faith.

Where’s the research to support the proposed direction?  The Discussion Paper does provide capsule summaries of two assessment approaches, termed “large-scale assessments” and “classroom assessments, ” but critical analysis of only the first of the two approaches.  There’s no indication in A Learning Province that the reputedly independent experts recognize let alone heed the latest research pointing out the pitfalls and problems associated with Teacher Assessments (TA) or the acknowledged “failure” of Assessment for Learning (AfL).  Instead, we are advised, in passing, that the Ontario Ministry has a research report, produced in August 2017, by the University of Ottawa, examining how to integrate “student well-being” into provincial K-12 assessments.

The Ontario Discussion Paper is not really about best practice in student assessment.  It’s essentially based upon rather skewed research conducted in support of “broadening student assessments” rather that the latest research on what works in carrying out student assessments in the schools.  Critical issues such as the “numeracy gap” now being seriously debated by leading education researchers and student assessment experts are not even addressed in the Ontario policy paper.

Educators and parents reading A Learning Province would have benefited from a full airing of the latest research on what actually works in student assessment, whether or not it conforms with provincial education dogma.  Nowhere does the Ontario document recognize Dylan Wiliam’s recent pronouncement that his own creation, Assessment for Learning, has floundered because of “flawed implementation” and unwise attempts to incorporate AfL into summative assessments.  Nor does the Ontario student assessment review team heed the recent findings of British assessment expert, Daisy Christodoulou.  In her 2017 book, Making Good Progress, Christodoulou provides compelling research evidence to demonstrate why and how standardized assessments are not only more reliable measures, but fairer for students form unprivileged families.  She also challenges nearly every assumption built into the Ontario student assessment initiative.

The latest research and best practice in student assessment cut in a direction that’s different from where the Ontario Ministry of Education appears to be heading. Christodoulou’s Making Good Progress cannot be ignored, particularly because it comes with a ringing endorsement from the architect of Assessment for Learning, Dylan Wiliam.  Classroom teachers everywhere are celebrating Christodoulou for blowing the whistle on “generic skills” assessment, ‘rubric-mania,’ impenetrable verbal descriptors, and the mountains of assessment paperwork. Bad student assessment practices, she shows, lead to serious workload problems for classroom teachers.  Proceeding to integrate SEL into province-wide assessments when American experts Angela Duckworth and David Scott Yeager warn that it’s premature and likely to fail is simply foolhardy.  No education jurisdiction priding itself on being “A Learning Province” would plow ahead when the lights turn to amber.

The Ontario Student Assessment document, A Learning Province, may well be running high risks with public accountability for student performance.  It does not really pass the sound research ‘sniff test.’  It looks very much like another Ontario provincial initiative offering a polished, but rather thinly veiled, rationale for supporting the transition away from “large-scale assessment” to “classroom assessment” and grafting unproven SEL competencies onto EQAO, running the risk of distorting its core mandate.

Where is Ontario really heading with its current Student Assessment policy initiative?  Where’s the sound research to support a transition from sound, large-scale testing to broader measures that can match its reliability and provide a level playing field for all?  Should Ontario be heeding leading assessment experts like Dylan Wiliam, Daisy Christodoulou, and Angela Duckworth? Is it reasonable to ask whether a Ministry of Education would benefit from removing a nagging burr in its saddle? 

 

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Melissa Jones teared up in late November 2017 talking to the Fredericton Daily Gleaner about the plight of her son, Grade 4 student Brayden Jones. Leafing through a box full  of school warning letters and suspension notices for his school behaviour, she was upset and frustrated with her local school’s latest policy of limiting her son to three hours a week for “soft-re-entry” to the regular school classroom.  The past four years have been hellish for the family because, as a result of Brayden’s behaviour outbursts, he had been on a reduced schedule and out of school altogether from November 2016 to October 2017. “He’s not getting any education,” Ms. Jones said. “They’re setting him up for failure.”

A nine-year old boy with autism, Alex Piper of Quispamsis, NB, was suspended from his elementary school in November 2017 for  a series of violent outbursts and the school district’s solution was to restrict the student to 30 minutes of class time per day. His father, Jeremy Piper, a 40-year-old RCMP officer, protested the decision to “kick-out” his son without providing any incident reports and for only allowing his son back for what amounted to three 10-minute classes between 8:45 and 9:15 am each day. “They consider this an education, I guess, ” he told CBC News New Brunswick. 

Saint John parent Heather Adams says the New Brunswick education system also failed her autistic son, Brian,who graduated from high school in 2015 with kindergarten-level reading and Grade 2 math skills. “He would come home from school saying, ‘I feel so stupid, I don’t want to go’,” she recalled.  “And I don’t think anybody should have to go to school and feel stupid, and that’s how he felt.” While she maintains that inclusive education can work for some students,”it failed Brian.”

Heartbreaking stories like these are now surfacing regularly in the Atlantic Canadian province of New Brunswick. Over the past year, a steady stream of distraught parents of students with severe learning challenges have spoken-out with personal stories of how the current model of inclusion has failed their children. A year ago, the President of the NBTA, Guy Arsenault, broke his silence and expressed alarm over the physical threats faced by teachers forced to wear “kevlar” vests to protect themselves.

All of this is happening in a provincial school system recognized in February 2016 by the global Zero Project human rights organization for championing the inclusion of all students in regular classrooms.  It is becoming clearer that the New Brunswick model is broken and badly needs to be re-engineered to better serve those with severe challenges and complex needs.

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A year ago, NBTA president Arsenault painted quite a picture of today’s high school English class.  Out of 28 registered students, 12 have identified special education needs, 10-11 cannot write and require oral exams, five are chronically absent, three have ADHD or ADD, two have mental health issues, two speak little English, and only two read at the expected grade level.  That is why, he insisted, “class composition” is now the biggest concern of teachers.

Class composition and inclusion have also been linked to declining student achievement levels.  In October 2016, Education Minister Brian Kenny and Arsenault agreed that it was a factor in the latest abysmal Anglophone Education test results. Only 20 per cent of Grade 6 students met provincial standards in mathematics and 26 per cent in science. In reading assessment, only 54 per cent scored successful standing.

All of this evidence merely confirms the findings of my recent research comparing New Brunswick’s inclusive system with other provinces across Canada. It’s all there in my two researchED presentations in Washington, DC (October 2016) and Toronto (November 2017).

Since June 2012, when NB Education Minister Jody Carr reaffirmed the province’s unshakable commitment to “inclusion for all,” things have gotten far worse. Spending $62-million to shore up the existing model from 2013-2016 has made no appreciable difference. Between 2 % and 4% of all students, numbering 1,900 to 3,800 students are struggling with severe learning challenges and limited to 3 hours a week of supports. Perhaps as many as 1,200 of New Brunswick’s Anglophone students have Autism Spectrum Disorder and require significantly more specialized support far exceeding the three hours per week.

In March 2016, Arsenault shocked many with the revelation that New Brunswick teachers were facing “unacceptable” levels of violence in both their “frequency and severity.” “Some teachers, ” he told CBC News, “have to wear Kevlar because of the biting that is going on with students and some of the kicking and punching…” Then he added: “We feel that students are entitled and have a right to be in classrooms but it should not be at the detriment of others.”

New Brunswick Autism activist Harold Doherty, father of Connor Doherty, a 21-year-old with severe autism, intellectual disability and epilepsy, has been fighting for a fuller continuum of support services for more than a decade.  Year after year, he sees evidence gathering that the NB model is contributing to the problem.  It’s simply wrong, he contends, to think that one program could ever meet the needs of every student.  “It’s a huge mistake,” he says, to ignore students being failed by the system.  He’s also convinced that the province has to abandon it’s model based upon well-intentioned theory in favour of evidence-based program responses based upon “what works for each child.”

With the New Brunswick model imploding, a rough consensus is emerging that will bring that province more into line with the Canadian leaders in inclusive education, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. The neighbouring province of Nova Scotia already offers more program options, including a Tuition Support Program (TSP) providing improved access to specialized program schools.    “For inclusion to work, ” Arsenault’s NBTA successor George Daley recently stated, ” the system must fit the student instead of trying to make the student fit the system.” Five years after my June 2012 AIMS report, Building a Bigger Tent, the key message seems to be sinking-in up in New Brunswick.

Why has the New Brunswick model imploded over the past five years? What’s standing in the way of inclusive education reform in New Brunswick? What can that province learn from other Canadian provinces about what works for the full range of special needs students? What can be done to promote evidence-based policy in New Brunswick and elsewhere in Canada? 

 

 

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