Recently, the Ontario government announced that they would be spending $200 million dollars on a revamped math strategy—one that focuses on a more “back-to-basics approach.”

Money spent on education is money well spent. However, the motivations behind such proposals need to be examined. Minister of Education Stephen Lecce placed quite the emphasis on the underwhelming performance of students—specifically their Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) marks—as an indicator that the “discovery math” approach the province took under the previous regime requires changing.

Although there lies an importance in identifying which teaching strategy is superior, for now I’d like to leave that to the politicians to quarrel about. Instead, I would like to focus on something of much greater importance: why do students, teachers, parents, and governments bestow such an importance on the marks achieved from standardized tests? One answer is that it allows for students and parents to create a simple indicator of who is ‘smart.’

But unfortunately, these hierarchy-enabling tests are a terrible way of measuring student success.

We need to recognize that success is not something that can be quantified. If stakeholders are so invested in seeing children succeed, it is critical to show them from an early age that simply obtaining a lower grade does not mean that you can’t be successful. Now, please don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want students at any level to begin receiving a squirrel instead of a 90, or a sad walrus instead of a 60. 

All that I’m trying to say is that if a student doesn’t perform well on a standardized test, perhaps there might be something wrong with the structure of the test. You wouldn’t want a mechanic to know how to change your tire, you’d want them to be able to do it.

According to the EQAO, currently in Ontario many “students’ basic knowledge of fundamental math skills is stronger than their ability to apply those skills to a problem or think critically to determine an answer.” What this means is that students are capable of memorizing information and facts because we’ve created tests that cater to those abilities, but they are unable to apply that information.

Being able to memorize something and regurgitate it on a piece of paper doesn’t sound like success to me. The importance of creating a baseline to easily evaluate the state of students is not beyond me, but since we place such an emphasis on enhancing our performance, why not place an effort on improving the system that tries to quantify it?

Rectifying this issue begins on an individual level. Provide students the ability to express themselves in ways that feel natural for them. Encourage them to discover and explore different learning styles and allow them to make mistakes. None of these qualities are easily established and developed without a dedicated and concentrated effort from teachers. This can be difficult for teachers to accomplish when they cannot provide sufficient time to each student or when their resources are stretched too thin. The importance of another factor is paramount as well—that of joy. There must exist an eagerness and enthusiasm within each student to learn, and within each educator to teach. Standardized tests breed the reverse sentiment which is reflected in what many Ontario students have dubbed EQAO tests: Evil Questions Attacking Ontario.

Within the rigidness of standardized tests, students are directly discouraged from exploring alternative ways of solving problems or arriving at productive conclusions, virtues that are essential to life. Standardized tests should be constructed not so that educators, school boards, and governments can pat themselves on the back for a job well done, but to identify where individual students require additional assistance. At that point however, if we are identifying the needs of different students, how standard can these tests really be?

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