Less than two months after being sworn in as premier in June 2018, Premier Doug Ford stood in the Ontario legislature and decried students’ math scores in the province.
“Half our students are failing math. We’re going to make sure our students aren’t on the bottom tier,” said Ford in August 2018. “We have the lowest math scores in all of Canada. We’re going to make sure that our students have the highest math scores in all of Canada.”
In the months and years that followed, the premier and his ministers laid blame on the previous Liberal government and pledged to “make sure that half of our grade 6 students aren’t failing math.”
More than five years later, there has been little improvement in math scores.
In 2019, the government introduced a $200-million four-year math strategy and appointed the first full-time chair to the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO). The following year, it rolled out a new math curriculum for elementary students. This year, it announced $71 million for a "Math Action Achievement Plan" aimed at boosting math skills and outlined priorities for school boards that included improving reading, writing and math scores.
When the Progressive Conservatives took office, 49 per cent of Grade 6 students had met or exceeded the provincial standard for math, which is equivalent to a B grade or higher, according to the EQAO'S 2017–18 standardized test scores. The scores were higher in reading and writing at 82 per cent and 80 per cent, respectively.
Five years later and into the Ford government’s second term in office, the percentage of Grade 6 students who met the provincial standard for math in 2022–23 was 50 per cent, up 3 per cent from 2021–22, but an increase of just one per cent since the PCs took power.
When the EQAO released its latest test scores in September, the government said they indicated “stability and moderate gains” and that the investments they’ve made are “leading to better student outcomes.”
Advocates, researchers and unions are split about the value of standardized testing for Grades 3, 6, 9 and 10 in math and literacy. And one candidate vying for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party is promising to do away the testing altogether.
While some say data collection is needed, others believe these scores say more about the socio-economic status of a school's neighbourhood than the quality of education going on inside. But that hasn't stopped the scores from becoming a key metric in real estate apps, encouraging high-income families to flock to neighbourhoods with high-scoring schools.
“The test has become so influential that it actually drives property values,” said Ardavan Eizadirad, assistant professor with Wilfrid Laurier University’s faculty of education.
Eizadirad said real estate agents use school rankings when trying to pitch a particular community, the idea being that the higher a school’s scores, the better it’s ranked and the more desirable it is to live nearby.
A Trillium analysis showed that Grade 6 reading tended to trend higher as the per capita total pre-tax income in a neighbourhood increased.
Scores also trended higher at schools in neighbourhoods where more adults had post-secondary degrees.
“We know schools in higher socio-economic status neighbourhoods will do better because they typically come from two-parent households and they're able to afford extracurricular services such as tutoring or other activities that can help the child develop holistically whether that's sports trips, experiential learning,” Eizadirad said.
But he said the scores don’t tell whole story about the quality of education in a particular school — something he stressed parents should keep in mind.
“If we're only looking at a snapshot of how someone does on one day or one week in a school year, how does that miss looking at what opportunities are actually available to the student and family going to the school?” said Eizadirad, who is also the executive director of THE Youth Association for Academics Athletics and Character Education, a non-profit operating in the Jane and Finch area that aims to engage youth from marginalized communities through year-round programming.
Eizadirad said research on the type of learning used in schools shows a trend of managing and policing behaviour and rote memorization in lower income areas versus experiential learning and critical thinking in higher-income areas.
He said the scores don’t show the “systemic barriers” students face or the demographics of the school. This could include if they’re refugees, learning English or are racialized.
Instead, he said the EQAO has become a barrier itself because students of a lower-socioeconomic status haven't had the same educational opportunities and likely will not perform as well — as a result, schools with low scores are labelled as "bad" schools and students come away with the harmful belief that they're "not smart" or "not academic," which becomes a "self-fulfilling prophecy."
“If you only look at a standardized test, but don't look at the level of needs those students (have), it gives us a partial snapshot of where do we need to support those schools,” he said.
Eizadirad said additional government funding for tutoring that included partnerships with community groups in 2022 to help children deal with the pandemic's disruption of their education should become permanent because it mitigates the opportunity gap between students.
Annie Kidder, executive director of advocacy group People for Education, said while having education data like EQAO test scores is helpful, it’s just as important to link it to demographic data.
“What's really important is to know (is) … can we see clear differences among the different groups in terms of who is and who isn't reaching the standard?”
Her other concern is that EQAO testing just covers math, reading and writing.
“They are important subjects, but we have a tendency because of that measuring to think that is the be all and end all in terms of educational success,” she said, adding this often means those areas become the focus of government funding and policy.
She’d like to see a broadening of areas measured.
“Not saying we should test every single student in every single subject, but instead saying we could do sample testing in lots of different areas to know more about how successful the education system is,” she said.
Kidder said while she doesn’t think EQAO scores are a “good proxy measure of overall success,” there aren’t really other easy-to-understand measurements that are available.
“So definitely people use EQAO scores, definitely real estate agents do and they definitely go, ‘This is a bad school, this is a good school,’ based on EQAO scores,” she said. “And I think many people would argue that that is not an accurate way to judge a school.”
The standardized assessments have also made their way into political conversations in recent days, with Liberal leadership candidate Bonnie Crombie promising to scrap the tests if she becomes premier.
"We need to ensure that our curriculum prepares our kids for the jobs of tomorrow," Crombie said on Nov. 13 at a fireside chat hosted by three education unions. "The EQAO, that causes a lot of stress, I don't know that it achieves what we want it to achieve — benchmarking in a snapshot in time, I don't think that's necessary, there are other ways we can gauge the performance of schools."
PCs installed first full-time EQAO chair
The Ford government ignited some controversy when it appointed Cameron Montgomery, who unsuccessfully ran as a PC candidate for Ottawa-Orléans in the 2018 election, as the chair of the EQAO’s board of directors in early 2019. The government turned the role into a full-time position with a $140,000 salary, compared to previous part-time chairs who earned around $5,000, according to a report in the Globe and Mail.
The government defended the move by highlighting Montgomery's experience and pointing to his years working at the University of Ottawa as an education professor. Then-education minister Lisa Thompson said her government was looking to modernize the EQAO and had been elected to fix declining math scores. The agency has moved away from paper-based to digital tests since then.
"We feel we needed to start at the top and make sure that EQAO has the right leadership and full-time focus, to ensure that we have the type of administration when it comes to standardization that supports teachers and ultimately students in the classroom, so that parents once and for all have confidence in the system and students have the fundamentals to graduate," the CBC reported Thompson as saying at the time.
A spokesperson for the EQAO said Montgomery was not available for an interview and the agency did not respond to written questions before publication.
Citing this year's EQAO scores, the government has said students are making progress after the pandemic.
Asked about whether the government's investments and its switch to a full-time chair for the EQAO have produced the desired outcomes, Isha Chaudhuri, spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said there's been progress.
"EQAO's regional results demonstrate that our back to-basics plan is working, and we will continue to support student achievement in reading, writing, and math," said Chaudhuri in a Nov. 14 statement. "We passed a new law which mandates that school boards focus on improving these critical skills with an emphasis on lifting standards and outcomes. That is why our government launched a plan to boost literacy and math skills by hiring 2,000 more educators, a math lead in every school board while modernizing the curriculum to focus on life skills like financial literacy, cursive writing, phonics, and coding."
In addition to funding for its math strategy, the education ministry said $109 million is going towards boosting literacy rates through initiatives like early reading screening, specialist teachers for kids up to Grade 3 who need extra reading support and special education assessments.
Please use the charts below to find and compare EQAO results across schools in Ontario. The first includes elementary schools and the second includes high schools.
Please use the map below to explore schools' Grade 6 results, colour-coded by math scores.
|Under 50%||50-60%||60-70%||70-80%||80-90%||Over 90%|
Data interactives by Patrick Cain and Jessica Smith Cross