About to graduate, education students question fairness of new mandatory math test

Posted on December 3, 2019 in Education Policy Context

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OttawaCitizen.com – Local News
December 3, 2019.   JACQUIE MILLER

The Ministry of Education says the teacher test is just one part of its plan to improve math skills among Ontario students.

Bella Lewkowicz estimates she has spent more than 600 hours over the last two years studying and practise teaching through the University of Ottawa to prepare for a new career as a high school French teacher.

She has spent zero hours learning how to teach math. Lewkowicz, 41, last studied the subject herself in high school more than two decades ago.

But like 4,000 other students set to graduate from Ontario faculties of education this spring, Lewkowicz will not be certified as a teacher until she passes the province’s new mandatory math test.

“How, exactly, is that fair?” asks Lewkowicz. She says changing the requirements a few months before she graduates is outrageous. She won’t be qualified to teach math anyway because her education is specialized, she says.

RELATED:  Colgan: Ontario’s math proficiency exam for teachers doesn’t pass the logic test

Education students across the province are campaigning against the math test for new teachers introduced by the Conservative government even while they cram to prepare for it.

Some fear the test might derail their teaching careers before they begin. The test will assess both their knowledge of the math curriculum from Grades 3 to 11 and pedagogy, or the best way to teach the subject.

The Ontario Teachers’ Federation has urged the government to cancel the test, calling it ill-conceived, arbitrary and “an affront to the teaching profession.” There is no evidence that giving teachers a standardized test predicts their performance or the success of students, the college said in a report titled A Recipe for Failure.

The Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), the agency charged with developing the test, released a report that also expressed misgivings. The evidence does not justify the widespread use of standardized testing of teachers, said the report.

“The use of caution with these tests is advised by many researchers on the basis that these tests are not consistently associated with the positive benefits that are often claimed. Furthermore, the potential negative impacts of these programs, including bias against marginalized groups and the decrease in the availability of qualified teachers, are more consistent impacts of these tests.”

The Ministry of Education says the teacher test is just one part of its plan to improve math skills among Ontario students. Declining math scores on standardized tests has been a major concern for the government. Ontario students test significantly worse in math than in reading and writing. In 2018-19, standardized tests found that only 48 per cent of students in Grade 6 and 58 per cent of students in Grade 3 met the provincial standard for math.

The government is also introducing a “back to basics” math curriculum, providing money to improve math teaching in schools, expanding an online tutoring program for students and subsidizing courses for teachers to gain qualifications in math.

The math test for new teachers will “enhance teacher confidence” and “support teachers in a subject area where their confidence may be low,” according to the Ministry of Education.

The test is meant to ensure that teachers have a minimum competency in math, according to a guide published by the EQAO.

Students can take the test as many times as they wish, although they’ll have to pay a fee after the first attempt.

The test “is not meant to discourage new teachers from entering the profession nor is it intended to add difficulties to teacher education either for teacher applicants or Ontario faculties of education,” says the EQAO.

Some students who have to take it, though, say they feel overwhelmed and angry.

Brittney Vandersel, a student in her final year of the education program at Trent University, is president of the recently formed Ontario Teacher Candidate Council, which is fighting the test.

“I have spent six years in a post-secondary degree program, thousands of dollars training to be a teacher, and now my accreditation comes down to a math test?” she says.My ability to be an empathetic, compassionate and effective teacher cannot be measured by a math test.”

Vandersel’s specialty is teaching drama and English to high school students. 

“In order to be qualified to teach high school math, you must have it as one of your qualified teachables,” she says. “To enforce a math proficiency test on teaching candidates who are not even qualified to teach math is absurd.” 

The math test also includes questions on pedagogy, which Lewkowizc says is also specialized.

“We teach by level, and learn how to teach by level. I’m not a primary school teacher. How to teach eight year olds differs vastly from teaching 16 year olds,” says Lewkowizc, a vice-president of the Ontario Teacher Candidate Council.

Teachers certified to teach from kindergarten to Grade 6 are qualified to each all subjects, including math, according to the Ontario College of Teachers. Those qualified to teach in Grades 7 to 12 chose two “teachable” subjects and cannot teach outside those grades unless they complete additional courses, said the college.

Mary Reid, an assistant professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), researches math knowledge and anxiety among students studying to be elementary teachers.

Students needed to improve their knowledge of the subject as well as learning how to teach it, Reid told the legislative committee studying the new law.

Reid taught a math pedagogy course but says she spent a lot of time explaining math concepts to her students, such as “why two negatives make a positive.”

“Obviously you can’t teach math unless you know the content quite well.”

OISE introduced a mandatory math knowledge course last year for students studying to be elementary teachers. It includes “face to face lessons which focus on learning math in deep conceptual ways, weekly quizzes and weekly homework modules,” she said.

Such courses are cost-effective and allow for “progressive instruction” rather than a “one-time, high stakes proficiency test,” Reid told the committee.

The government argues that the mandatory math test will help to ensure all teachers can effectively teach math. The test “demonstrates a commitment to having highly qualified teachers who are able to prepare students for the future,” Ottawa West-Nepean MPP Jeremy Roberts said in a letter he sent to Lewkowicz.

Lewkowicz says that at the very least students now enrolled in faculties of education should be exempt from the test. There are 8,728 students in the two-year teaching programs at Ontario’s public universities, with 4,052 of them in their final year, according to the Council of Ontario Universities.

Vandersel estimates it would take six to eight years to properly introduce a math test for new teachers. That would allow students in high school who want to be teachers to start planning to take math courses, and for faculties of education to develop courses to ensure all students are taught math pedagogy. 

What’s on the math test?

The multiple-choice test has two components: 70 per cent of the questions cover knowledge of the math curriculum from Grades 3 to 11. The remaining 30 per cent cover knowledge of pedagogy. Candidates must score at least 70 per cent on both components to qualify for a teaching certificate. There are no exemptions from the test.

Students say that represents a vast subject area, and the EQAO has not provided enough support to help them prepare.

The study materials posted by the EQAO include a document that summarizes the math courses taught from Grades 3 to 11.

However, a guide prepared by the EQAO calls the test  a “minimum competency mathematics assessment” and says it won’t cover all the mathematics skills and knowledge students learn from Grades 3 to 11. The test will be based on “core understandings, otherwise known as big ideas, surrounding important content dimensions in mathematics.”

The areas to be tested include “number sense, relationships and proportional reasoning and measurement.”

A list of topics under those categories ranges from “working with percent” and “solving linear systems graphically” to converting to metric units and “applying Pythagorean theorem.”

Some of the questions will also have a “financial literacy context,” it says, that “may include earning and purchasing; saving, investing, and borrowing; and scenarios related to transportation and travel.”

Critics also say a multiple-choice test is not the best way to assess math knowledge. In Reid’s opinion, any math proficiency test should include a variety of forms, including open-ended questions so students can demonstrate their reasoning through models, drawing and diagrams, and be administered to students midway through their education.

Vandersel points out that the pedagogy material students were told to study to prepare for the math test say students should not be tested in an “online multiple choice format.”   

Here are examples of the format of the multiple-choice test teacher candidates must pass.

About to graduate, education students question fairness of new mandatory math test


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