English Language Learners (ELL) are overrepresented among students who don’t meet Ontario’s provincial standards, the Education Quality Assurance Office (EQAO) 2021-2022 test results show. Educators and academics believe it’s the tests that need to be changed.
“[These] tests were not designed with multilingual people in mind,” said Jeff Bale, Associate professor of the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning (CTL) at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) at the University of Toronto.
“Standardized tests… [involve] norms on populations that don’t include multilingual people.”
According to educational experts, provincial tests set students up for failure because they do not account for cultural differences. Some have gone as far as calling for the tests to be eradicated.
In the Ontario School Policy and Program Report, ELL students tend to be students who have recently arrived in Canada, or are born in Canada but English is their second language. A report in 2017 by a group of students advocating for a stronger public education system in Canada, found 63 per cent of elementary schools and 58 per cent of secondary schools had ELL students.
However, even though the ELL students make up a small portion of students taking provincial tests, they account for the majority of those who fail.
There has been an increasing number of ELLs who failed the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) in each passing year.
Despite accounting for only five per cent of students who take the test, over a third of ELLs failed on their first try. From elementary to high school, ELLs make up less than five to 15 per cent of classrooms, but fail at double the rate of their non-ELL counterparts.
“The biggest challenge of this particular test is that it is tied to credit,” said Luiza Mureseanu, an ELL teacher in the Peel District School Board (PDSB) on the OSSLT. “And that is something that is very stressful for our learners because they must pass it. If they didn’t pass it, that only limited option, though they can write it again the next year.”
According to these tests, ELLs in elementary and high school failed standardized testing at a higher rate than their non-ELL counterparts, despite their lower numbers in elementary and high school classrooms.
Mureseanu has been teaching multilingual learners for over 20 years and is part of the English as a Second Language/English Literacy Development Resource Group of Ontario.
She works in a school region that constantly welcomes newcomers. From June to September 2017-2018, PDSB had over 3,000 newcomer students in their schools.
“I do know situations…. where students can arrive in February at the beginning of the semester and still have to write the test,” said Murseanu. “And even if, let’s say, students have an intermediate level of English, they don’t have the immersion in critical content and cannot …cope with the [test].”
If students do not pass the test the first time, they can retake it. If they fail a second time, students will have to take a separate literacy test to get their Ontario Secondary Diploma.
In 2018-2019 before the pandemic first-time eligible ELL students who were taking the test and previous eligible students taking the test, 29 per cent were unsuccessful. When it came to non-ELL students, 20 per cent were unsuccessful.
ELL students taking the OSSLT are entitled to special provisions and accommodations of the test, such as format changes to the test, environment adjustments and more time allowed for the test. In special cases, if needed, exemptions and deferrals.
However, with all of those accommodations, Mureseanu believes it is still not friendly for ELL students.
“Even with some changes, it’s not culturally responsive. It’s not ELL-friendly or multilingual-friendly. It does not have that lens does not have that approach,” expressed Mureseanu.
“If you have someone who is new to the country, just arrived from Thailand, and must write the test, you will not necessarily understand or know everything that is pertaining to culture or the community in Canada, and therefore, [students] have a very good chance to fail that test,” said Mureseanu.
She explains that some questions on the test include writing a news story about a car wash, or questions about Canadian geography, and other subjects that newcomer students who may not know what this is will “go off topic.”
“Vocabulary is a big challenge for both reading and writing tasks,” said Mureseanu.
The OSSLT format has been cut shorter after being available digitally, which Mureseanu found helped a lot of students.
She shared that ELL students can still succeed on the OSSLT but just need accommodations like shorter readings, visual graphic representation tools, and shorter tasks.
“[ELL students] come with assets, they have gifts, and all those kinds of skills are transferable. They can write everything that is in school. So that’s not the issue. The issue is that they have to be supported properly,” said Mureseanu.
Past results and the pandemic
A contributing factor as to why the EQAO results from 2021-2022 of ELL and non-ELL students decreased is due to having to learn through online platforms during the pandemic.
In 2018, before the pandemic hit and testing stopped until 2021, only eight per cent of EQAO students did not meet provincial standards.
“There were multiple ways in which the pandemic was particularly challenging for English language learners,” said Kelly Gallagher-Mack, Associate Professor & Program at Wilfrid Laurier University.
“Factors [were] a higher burden of illness, which went with higher poverty and more stress, all of which makes it hard to learn,” explained Gallagher-Mack, who studies issues of educational inequality and how to make education more equitable.
In 2021, the professor was part of a study that looked at how COVID-19 disrupted Ontario and believes newcomers students were one of the most affected groups.
“So one of the things that happened with the pandemic is students lose their opportunities for everyday immersion because it’s just not the same thing to learn through a screen, ” said Gallagher-Mack.
According to Lessons Learned: The Pandemic and Learning from Home in Canada, three in 10 families with school-aged children could not access online classes because of the challenges around paying for Internet access. The report found fast internet was difficult to afford for houses with low incomes, which included racialized groups such as immigrants.
Not only were newcomer students struggling with the pandemic, but also parents.
“Schools were much less able to provide those kinds of connecting points to help parents support their kids’ transition,” said Gallagher-Mack.
Schools can act like “social resources” for these students, and learning through a screen can make it tough, especially if part of an ELL program.
Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) report on resource recommendations for youth found in 24 studies conducted on children/youth returning to school during the pandemic, children/youth experienced many feelings of confusion, anger, frustration, boredom, fear, and stigma. In addition, many experienced less access to services due to schools being closed and challenges in accessing basic needs because of financial losses.
Data use and self-esteem
However, assistant professor Ardavan Eizadirad who was a previous teacher in Ontario and the author of “Decolonizing Educational Assessment: Ontario Elementary Students and the EQAO” believes EQAO testing should not be used to evaluate students.
“The way that EQAO is administered is very black and white. And, you know, students can use any support, they can ask a lot of questions, but a lot of fear and anxiety is induced, and that doesn’t really help folks who are also adjusting to a new country and learning a new language and figuring out their identity at a crucial time in their youth,” said Eizadirad.
Eizadirad is an Iranian immigrant and past ELL student. As a previous educator teaching children, he believes the tests are harmful as they can play into stereotyping more racialized students and also affects student self-esteem issues, especially racialized and newcomer students.
Fraser Institute, a research and educational organization, has used EQAO data to rank schools and compare schools.
The organization has been called out by educators in British Columbia and Alberta for concerns in the past for allegedly providing standardized testing data in a misleading way, especially regarding ranking schools.
This type of ranking not only pressures school leaders but, as Eizadirad explains, perpetuates stereotypes that schools with more ELL students or racialized communities are more likely to receive lower rankings.
However, for Eizadirad, it’s the way the test can affect students’ mental health. He explains that immigrants and refugees, especially those fleeing, are trying to adjust and adapt in Canada. A new language test like this can lead to a “self-fulfilling prophecy’ where students do not see themselves as good enough.
“A lot of folks have developed anxiety all the way going back to elementary due to the amount of pressure placed on this test and what they think it represents, the results when it comes to who they are. We might tell them the results don’t mean that, but how they perceive it and how we deliver it creates such a vacuum pressure that they perceive it in that negative way,” explained Eizadirad.
He believes the test should be scrapped, and the money used to conduct the EQAO test should be used for other student services, such as mental health.
Scraping standardized testing across the provinces
Educators in Ontario, educators in New Brunswick, the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF), and the Alberta Teachers Association (ATA) have all expressed concerns and called for ending the province-wide assessments.
Many educators in all three provinces have expressed concerns about these tests not being the best way to assess students’ skills.
The BCTF, which also has had issues with how test results are used by the Fraser Institute to rank schools, has opposed the provincial test in British Columbia, the Foundation Skills Assessment, stating the test, “disproportionately affects students in low-income and racialized communities.” Additionally, the letter criticized the test stating it cannot always be “unique” and “varied” to accommodate all student needs.
The teacher association in Alberta, similarly to BCTF, shared their concern in their letter at how the results of tests are being misused. Additionally, states that the test does not meet students’ educational needs.
In a statement to New Canadian Media, the Calgary Education Board (CBE) division stated that ELL students overall did achieve strong Provincial Achievement Test results. However, ELL students in the Social Studies 9 assessments achieved lower results.
For Bale, the professor at UofT, the province should be changing the test to better support ELL students.
”If the province genuinely cared about literacy, then they will create a test that allows especially newcomer students to demonstrate their literacy in the language in the languages they know,” said Bale.
“But even beyond that, the most important message is to have the adults in school, …. is [to] appreciate the multilingual abilities and the multiliteracy abilities students already have. Build the assessment, that curriculum around those multiple abilities [and] to stop imposing some sort of normal English way of doing it on them.”
Muzna is a journalism student at the University of Toronto and is an inspiring investigative journalist. She currently lives in Scarborough and focuses on reporting stories about visible and marginalized communities. Her favourite medium to work with is audio.