The man the Ford government tapped to lift Ontario students' low math scores now says that was an impossible task.
But Cameron Montgomery, who wrapped up a five-year stint as chair of the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) last week, told The Trillium the agency has the potential to become a "research powerhouse" for the betterment of kids' education.
The EQAO is responsible for creating and administering reading, writing, and math assessments for Ontario students in Grades 3, 6, and 9, as well as the Grade 10 literacy test. In early 2019, then-education minister Lisa Thompson said her government was looking to modernize the EQAO and had been elected to fix declining math scores.
She ignited some controversy by appointing Montgomery — who'd unsuccessfully run as a PC candidate for Ottawa—Orléans in the 2018 election — to a new, full-time position with a $140,000 salary. Previous part-time chairs earned around $5,000, according to a report in the Globe and Mail at the time.
But critics couldn't say Montgomery wasn't qualified, as a former professor of education with a doctorate in Educational Psychology from Laval University.
"They said I was going to save math and all that, but you just can't — that's impossible," said Montgomery in an exclusive interview with The Trillium on Feb. 2. "There's no such thing as a saviour. We went through a pandemic, and if you look at trends across the globe ... it's all the same trend: kids' mathematics is lacking."
Soon after the Progressive Conservatives took office, the premier and his ministers pledged to “make sure that half of our grade 6 students aren’t failing math.”
At the time, 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. Five years later, in 2022–23, this percentage was 50.
The testing is controversial; advocates, researchers, and unions are split about its value. The leader of the Ontario Liberal Party has promised to eliminate it.
For instance, Ardavan Eizadirad, assistant professor with Wilfrid Laurier University’s faculty of education, previously told The Trillium the scores don’t show the “systemic barriers” students face or the demographics of the school and instead, 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."
Montgomery said that kind of criticism misses the mark.
"Couldn't one say the same thing about report cards or consistent academic results in the classroom?" Montgomery wondered, adding that EQAO scores are used to identify schools that need extra support.
Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie pledged during the party's recent leadership campaign to scrap the EQAO if she became premier, saying the testing caused stress and was "benchmarking in a snapshot in time."
Her platform said she would "partner with parents, teachers and education experts to develop a reporting strategy that measures students’ success and identify potential areas of growth."
"That's when politics comes and really interferes with reality — you just can't kind of wipe out a whole assessment regime," said Montgomery when asked about Crombie's promise.
"Can you imagine wiping out EQAO? What kind of holistic provincial information would we have?"
Using EQAO scores to get a holistic understanding of children's academic performance was Montgomery's goal at the agency, and he said that, while he was able to make some strides toward that, there’s much more that can be done.
“(EQAO) needs to be a research powerhouse in the world and that would entail government buy-in, political buy-in. It entails working through the layers of privacy and ... it really entails avant-garde, forward thinking," he said.
While the agency has recently developed an interactive dashboard that people can use to find results by boards and individual schools, Montgomery said it should be possible to publicly share EQAO scores that are broken down by demographics.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in the United States does this well, said Montgomery.
“They're taking their findings and they're breaking them down. They're breaking them down into Hispanic Americans, they're looking at First Nations … they're looking at different demographics,” he said. “And they're creating an extremely salient and poignant narrative for teachers, for parents, for school boards and for society at large. So why are we stumbling upon this stumbling block? That was probably one of my biggest challenges.”
He said when political rhetoric is put aside, it’s about the kids.
“What it boils down to is understanding our children's needs, achievement gaps, progress, whatever it be,” he said. “It really boils down to our kids.”
The agency could also expand partnerships with other organizations — the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES), an Ontario-based health research institute, school boards, TVO, TFO, and Statistics Canada were some of the examples Montgomery gave — to link data sets, he said.
"Think of the data (ICES) have — we could start doing predictors between mental health and kids' performance," Montgomery said. "Sky's the limit, (it's a) gold mine when we talk about correlating data with other entities, organizations, agencies."
Getting there, however, will require a combined effort from various parties and tackling privacy issues.
"I just wish it would have been more simplistic and I just wish there were some kind of combined approach to break down those walls," he said, noting that school boards, for example, have concerns about student identity and privacy laws, "which one has to respect."
"But it just seems to me like the Americans found a way around this that's much more objective ... constructive, palpable, whereas we seem to be playing it so safe, that it's almost to the detriment of understanding our kids' achievement and the gaps."
During Montgomery's tenure, the agency digitalized its assessments, starting with field testing of the math proficiency test for teacher candidates and then its assessments for students during the pandemic.
"In my opinion, there is no other jurisdiction in North America that was able to pivot that well, that quickly toward a digital assessment that's not only adaptive, is linear," he said. "You can say, yes it's multiple choice ... but you can also achieve higher-order cognitive thinking through multiple choice, EQAO was able to achieve that through a very sophisticated form of AI."
As with most government-appointed agency officials, Montgomery hasn't been able to speak with the media often, except for some interviews he gave early in his tenure, and he called that "disappointing."
"It's important to have an objective democratic dialogue," he said.
Montgomery said while having the opportunity to speak publicly could have changed the discourse around the EQAO, he tried to do this in other ways — by meeting and speaking with stakeholders such as school board chairs and trustees, parents groups and special education groups. Part of this included demonstrations of the interactive dashboard, he said.
After closing a five-year chapter at the EQAO, Montgomery will now be working as a consultant in education, saying he has no plans to take another run at politics.
The government has indicated it plans to revert to a part-time chair for the agency.
A Jan. 19 memo from Premier Doug Ford to Trevor Day, the legislature’s clerk, listed intended government appointments including Sanjay Dhebar as a part-time chair for the EQAO.
Dhebar's appointment is not yet official. There is a 30-day wait period that allows the Standing Committee on Government Agencies to request intended appointees to appear before the committee, which the NDP said it had requested in Dhebar's case.
A meeting would either need to be agreed to by the subcommittee — made up of one member each from the Progressive Conservatives and NDP — and scheduled before Feb. 19, or the committee would need to unanimously agree to extend the 30-day deadline. But Dhebar doesn't have to appear before the committee. Once the clock runs out, the appointment could be made official.
Dhebar is currently listed as a board member of the EQAO, and is an instructor with the Schulich Executive Education Centre at the York University’s Schulich School of Business.
Asked to comment on Montgomery's statements and the government's plan for the EQAO chair role, Isha Chaudhuri, a spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said, “We thank Dr. Cameron Montgomery for his five years of service as EQAO chair. He led the organization through COVID-19 and supported the board with the digitalization and modernization of assessments. Our priority at EQAO and across the Ministry is to get back to basics to help boost reading, writing and math skills for all students."