Ontario education minister says school boards can delay Grade 9 EQAO testing

TORONTO — A standardized test for Grade 9 math students may not go ahead next week as planned in most schools, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Wednesday, as a result of teacher job action.

Amid a contentious round of contract negotiations, public high school teachers in Ontario have been on a work-to-rule campaign since November that includes not preparing students for the Education Quality and Accountability Office test.

Given the uncertainty surrounding it, the Progressive Conservative government had been weighing whether to proceed with the test, but Lecce ultimately punted the decision to individual school boards to either administer it next week or delay it until June.

"I recognize this means that EQAO Grade 9 math tests may not take place in the majority of English public schools on Monday, and the government remains concerned about the negative impact union escalation is having on students," Lecce said.

"The test supports improved teaching and learning and it should not be in jeopardy. (The union) has made a promise not to adversely impact student learning, and they have broken this promise to parents."

The two largest school boards, in Toronto and Peel Region, announced they would postpone the test.

Cathy Abraham, the president of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association, said it puts boards in a tricky position.

"It's going to be really difficult to administer this test without the support of teachers if they choose to do it now and it's going to create other logistical challenges if they wait until June," she said, noting that by that time some students will not have taken a math course since February.

"While we appreciate the recognition that local school boards should be able to make local choices, this is just a difficult decision either way."

The EQAO announcement came the same day as high school teachers staged a one-day strike in select public boards across the province, the latest in a series of rotating strikes.

Harvey Bischof, the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said his members will still be teaching, evaluating students, and talking to parents about student progress.

"All of the important factors of student learning will continue to go on in classrooms and the postponement of a standardized test really doesn't have any negative impact on any individual kid," Bischof said.

"EQAO isn't about learning, it's about assessment and those are very different things, but frankly I don't expect (Lecce) to know the difference."

NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the EQAO tests are outdated, but accused Lecce of undermining the test by leaving the decisions up to school boards.

"He's absolutely passing the buck here with this idea that school boards could make their own plans," she said. "It's really not only making things worse, but de-standardizing a standardized test. To me it shows that the minister really doesn't understand the purpose of standardized testing and why it exists."

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association also announced Wednesday that its 45,000 teachers will be starting an administrative work-to-rule campaign on Monday, including not participating in standardized testing, preparing report card comments or participating in Ministry of Education initiatives.

"We have not taken this decision lightly, but we believe it is necessary to secure a fair contract and protect publicly funded education in Ontario," OECTA president Liz Stuart said in a statement.

"We have been doing our part to negotiate an agreement, including meeting almost 40 times with the government and school board trustees. However, the Ford government has been disorganized and disrespectful throughout the process, and they continue to insist on an agreement that includes significant cuts."

OECTA said it has bargaining dates with the province Thursday and Friday.

Catholic and high school teachers were angered when the Tories announced last March that average secondary school class sizes would jump from 22 to 28 and four e-learning courses would be mandatory for graduation.

The province has since scaled back those increases, to an average class size of 25 and two e-learning courses, but the union says that's not good enough.

Lecce has repeatedly said the key sticking point in negotiations is compensation, with the union demanding a roughly two-per-cent wage increase and the government offering one per cent.

The government enacted legislation limiting public sector wage increases to one per cent for three years. The teachers and other unions are challenging the move in court as an unconstitutional violation of their collective bargaining rights.

Wednesday's strike by OSSTF targeted eight school boards. Because the union represents education workers and support staff in elementary schools in some boards, both elementary and high schools are closed in three boards: Algoma District School Board, Greater Essex County District School Board and Avon Maitland District School Board.

High schools are closed in Peel District School Board, the District School Board of Niagara, Limestone District School Board and Renfrew Country District School Board.

All schools remained open in the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board, as its OSSTF members are 25 noon-hour aides.

In December, a government-appointed mediator called off negotiations between the province and the union, saying the parties remained too far apart. No further dates are scheduled.

Elementary teachers are also in the midst of a work-to-rule campaign and have no bargaining dates scheduled. Teachers in the French system have talks scheduled throughout January.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 8, 2020.

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press