Education Minister Stephen Lecce has cancelled all remaining standardized testing for students this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with schools set to remain closed until at least April 6. This also comes as school boards await direction from the government about how it plans to "ensure learning continues" during the next few weeks, with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) telling parents they can expect a new government website with access to online learning tools soon.
Meanwhile Ontario teaching candidates are calling on the government to also cancel the math proficiency test that they would need to pass before getting a teaching licence after the first administration of the test was promised sometime this spring.
Lecce announced on Tuesday evening that "as part of our plan to protect students and staff, all remaining standardized tests for the 2019-2020 school year have been cancelled." He said in a statement that the decision was made after consultations during the past few days between ministry officials and parents, students, educators and administrators.
"During the COVID-19 global pandemic students are facing immense pressures in their academic journey," Lecce said. "Given these extraordinary circumstances, the government is taking immediate action to continue protecting the health and safety as well as reduce the burden on students."
The Grade 10 literacy test, which is a requirement to get a high school diploma, was scheduled for March 31 and the Grade 9 math testing was set for June 2-15. Reading, writing and math testing for Grade 3 and 6 students was also supposed to take place from May 19-June 1. All of these tests are administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO).
Lecce stressed that the cancellation would "not impede student graduation."
"We will continue to follow the advice of Ontario’s chief medical officer of health to ensure the safety of all students and staff," he said.
The TDSB said students who aren't graduating this year would be able to write the literacy test in the 2020-21 school year.
Nancy Brady, president of the Ontario Principals’ Council (OPC), welcomed the cancellation of this year's standardized testing.
"Now that schools are closed for the next few weeks, it would be even more difficult, if not impossible, for testing to take place that would be an accurate reflection of the learning taking place in schools this year," Brady said in a statement to QP Briefing, thanking the government for making a decision "reflective of this extraordinary time, in the best interests of students."
Previously, the OPC and two affiliates called on the Progressive Conservative government to postpone the Grade 10 literacy test to the next school year due to ongoing job action from education unions — an issue that has been overshadowed during the last week by the novel coronavirus crisis. Part of the work-to-rule protocol from education unions included not participating in EQAO-related activities.
The principals' councils wrote in a Feb. 10 letter to Lecce that they were concerned about being able to properly prepare students for the assessments and administering the tests. They suggested the government exempt any Grade 12 students who still needed to pass it "for this year only," or that school boards just administer the test for students who are graduating and still needed to complete it.
The principals' councils also asked that students who took math during the first semester not be required to write the Grade 9 math test in June. Lecce gave school boards the option to cancel the Grade 9 math testing that was scheduled for January, but said students would still need to take the test in June. The January testing was meant for students taking applied or academic math courses during their first semester of the 2019-20 school year, while the June testing would typically be for those taking math in the second semester.
Despite calls to cancel the June testing altogether, including from the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board which cited "enormous stress" and "inequality as a reason to do so, Lecce had until Tuesday not indicated that he would change his mind.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Teaching Candidates' Council (OTCC) has asked the government to cancel the math proficiency test that was supposed to start this spring for teaching candidates.
"The situation with COVID-19, it sucks for everybody, it sucks for teacher candidates too because a lot of people who were in placements are no longer in placements because schools are closed," said OTCC vice-president Bella Lewkowicz, speaking about the hours teaching candidates are required to spend in a classroom before they can receive their licence from the Ontario College of Teachers. She said the teachers' strikes also affected placements this year.
Lewkowicz, a second-year teaching candidate at the University of Ottawa who is wrapping up her degree in a few weeks, said she'd like to get rid of some uncertainty for her peers and "just give students the chance to breathe this year."
In February the OTCC announced its plan to fight in court the government's new requirement for candidates applying for their licence on or after March 31 to pass a math test.
"We’re still going to fight it regardless of how they treat it this year, but for the sake of giving teacher candidates this year just a little bit of a reprieve from everything that they’ve endured...just please set them free from the math test and let them focus on the number of practicum hours that they need to make up and figuring out how to finish their courses," Lewkowicz said.
She said it's probable the government would lift the requirement for this year and give candidates "transitionary certifications," but require them to have to write and pass the test by some future date — a move she said would allow candidates to "take a deep breath and relax."
Lewkowicz said a pilot of the test recently took place, but official dates for the testing haven't yet been set.
A spokesperson for Lecce said "a decision has not been made yet on this."
Meanwhile, as families and educators enter the second half of March Break, boards are telling families that they will soon hear about what school closures due to COVID-19 will mean for students.
During his March 12 announcement of the upcoming closures, Lecce said "the continuity of learning" for students is a focus for the government.
"There is a plan that is being finalized that will ensure learning continues in this province," he said, not offering many further details.
The TDSB posted in a notice to parents on Wednesday that the ministry "expects to launch a website this week with a single point of access to online learning opportunities."
The ministry is also working with boards, according to the TDSB, to "help assess student access to learning in terms of information technology and support and to assist with the continuation of learning between teachers and students on a province-wide basis."
The TDSB said staff were also working to make learning resources available to students.
Charles Pascal, a professor with the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, previously said there are "all sorts of creative ways of ensuring that learning at home or out in the natural environment can proceed."
Pascal, who is also a former deputy minister of education, said he thinks educators know best how to do this and that he "wouldn’t wait for the minister to determine that."
He said online learning would work for most students, but an alternative such as "learning packages" that families can go and pick up would be needed for the students who don't have computers at home.
Pascal suggested schools have staggered times for students or parents to pick up these packages and assignments so that administrators can ensure there is adequate social distancing.
Photo Credit: Rene Johnston/Toronto Star