Story by Teri Pecoskie
Teri Pecoskie is an award-winning multimedia journalist and The Spectator's education reporter. She also co-authored the landmark BORN: A Code Red Project series, which was awarded the country's highest investigative journalism honour in 2012.
Teri has covered issues related to school achievement since she started at The Spectator in 2010.
Published April 12, 2014.
As school reformer Horace Mann famously put it, education is a great equalizer. It’s the balance wheel of the social machinery. Something that offers every child, regardless of personal circumstance, a fair shot at success.
In Hamilton, though, there’s nothing equal about education. The fact is, where you are born, and to whom, can have a profound effect on your future.
Imagine for a moment you’re a student at St. Patrick – a boxy, brick school wedged between King and Main streets at the east end of downtown.
You have some of the best teachers in the system. They feed you, tutor you – do whatever it takes to meet your unique needs.
But even with extra help and other interventions, there’s a good chance you’re falling behind.
In the last six years, St. Patrick has rarely surpassed the Ontario average on provincial standardized tests. And it’s not uncommon for fewer than one in three students to meet the bar set by the province in reading, writing and math.
Now imagine you’re a student at St. Thomas the Apostle in Waterdown, about a dozen kilometres north.
That school has exceeded the provincial average on almost every standardized assessment since 2008, and done so with less funding and fewer supports.
At St. Thomas the Apostle, around 15 per cent of students come from low-income households – close to the Ontario norm. At St. Patrick, it’s 53 per cent.
These two schools illustrate a complex challenge facing local educators. It’s known as the achievement gap, and it’s happening despite significant investments aimed at improving outcomes in the city’s most disadvantaged schools.
“It’s a really gnarly problem that we haven’t seemed to be able to totally address,” says Annie Kidder, executive director of research and advocacy group People for Education. “The very deep problem that the accident of your birth has an impact on how well you do in school.”
That’s not to say education officials in Hamilton have turned a blind eye. In fact, they’ve worked hard to change it.
Over the last several years, many of the city’s at-risk schools have been on an upward trajectory, particularly when it comes to literacy scores. And it’s largely due to school-based interventions – everything from breakfast programs to homework clubs.
But the test results prove that money and resources aren’t a cure-all. The experts say more can be done, such as creating a healthier mix of incomes within schools to reduce the gaps between high and low achievers.
“We wouldn’t accept doctors who were successful with only a percentage of their patients,” says Jeff Kugler, executive director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Urban Schooling. “So why are we accepting of this?”
In this analysis of more than half a decade of standardized test scores, The Spectator found clear connections between academic achievement and a range of social and economic factors, including a school’s concentration of low-income students. Our examination of outcomes at more than 140 local elementary schools also shows:
Grounded in six years of data from Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office, the findings build on previous Spectator investigations into the link between income and achievement at the city’s public high schools. That work highlighted troubling differences in graduation rates and standardized test scores across Hamilton.
This project reveals a trend that’s even more alarming.
The gap between low- and high-achieving schools is, in fact, more pronounced at the elementary level, and poor outcomes are most likely to occur where low incomes and other factors, such as parent education, a child’s first language and rates of students with special needs, collide.
VIDEO: Local kids react to EQAO tests
Sue Verrelli knows there’s not one reason why students struggle on EQAO tests.
“Maybe they weren’t feeling well or maybe they didn’t have breakfast,” says the St. Patrick principal. “Maybe they just needed a particular question reworded for them and it all would have come out.”
It’s a cold day and Verrelli is huddled over a hot cup of coffee. She’s surrounded by a couple of students, a parent and a pair of teachers who’ve been drawn together to talk about the school’s history with “the test.”
Smack-dab in the middle of one of Hamilton’s most impoverished neighbourhoods, St. Patrick has had its struggles with EQAO. Skip back six years and you’ll find fewer than one in three Grade 3 students at the school were meeting the provincial standard in reading, while fewer than half were hitting the mark in writing and math.
The Grade 6 results at the time were even more dire. In 2008, just one in four students were reading at grade level. In writing, it was 42 per cent, and 22 per cent in math.
It’s possible some kids were distracted by illness or hunger the day they wrote those tests. But it’s also possible their marks were influenced by other factors completely beyond their control.
For instance, there’s about a one-in-three chance that the children who wrote those tests were new to Canada – a factor linked to lower scores. There are even greater odds they came from a low-income family or spoke something other than English as their native tongue.
It could also be that they just weren’t there.
That’s because at St. Patrick, it’s not unusual for a student to be deported. Nor is it odd for a child to turn up in class just before EQAO, after days, even weeks, away.
“That’s part of our community,” says Verrelli. “Unfortunately, it’s very hard.”
Jennifer Rullo nods in agreement.
The Grade 6 teacher has watched the kids at St. Patrick come and go for five years now.
In fact, that’s how she ended up at the school, when an unexpected influx of students left it short-staffed.
It’s difficult to watch them leave, she admits, “especially when they’re making gains.” But what’s even harder is trying to get the drop-ins back on track.
“You can’t control where they were before or what they were doing,” she says. “So when they show up, you take them in. You make them feel like they’re part of the class and catch them up as best as you can.”
There are few similarities between schools in Hamilton and those in big cities south of the border.
The U.S. districts are much larger, for one – sometimes by hundreds of schools. And they have different curriculums and school structures.
They also differ when it comes to the distribution of low-income kids.
It’s a topic David Rusk knows better than anyone. The author, urban strategist and former Albuquerque mayor has spent a career studying segregation in American cities and schools.
But he’s also familiar with the situation in Hamilton. He has been since at least 2012, when he met with the city’s public school officials in Washington to talk about the value of mixed-income neighbourhoods and schools.
The Spectator asked Rusk to take a look at the EQAO data. He compared it to several American regions he’s recently analyzed.
What he found is that schools in Hamilton are much less segregated than those in metropolitan areas in the U.S. Take Philadelphia.
According to Rusk’s analysis, almost half of the 457 high schools in the City of Brotherly Love are either high- or hyper-poverty, which means no less than 60 or 80 per cent of students come from low-income families, respectively. Another fifth of the schools have few or no low-income students at all.
Hamilton, on the other hand, has three high-poverty schools – Roxborough Park, Hess Street and Dr. J. Edgar Davey. The bulk have a moderately low proportion of low-income kids, and not one is hyper-impoverished.
The differences between these two systems are significant, but Rusk highlights an important parallel. In both cases, the percentage of low-income kids is still the primary factor affecting test scores.
His finding isn’t unique. Since sociologist Samuel Coleman’s seminal report on the subject in 1966, research has shown that socioeconomic characteristics – income, in particular – are the overwhelming factors associated with a child’s academic success.
Consider the local scores:
Among the 10 schools with the highest proportion of low-income students, just one met the provincial average on EQAO tests in the past six years combined. It was St. Lawrence, which slightly beat the mark in Grade 6 writing.
Among the 10 schools at the opposite end of the spectrum, all but one met the Ontario norm.
There is, however, some good news in the numbers.
Although achievement is clearly connected to income, that doesn’t mean the fix is in. School-based interventions – everything from snack programs to smaller class sizes – have been shown to help students overcome the potential effects of poverty and other detrimental factors.
“It’s not a determinant, because there are always the outliers that are able to achieve regardless,” explains Bruce Rodrigues, the chief executive officer of EQAO.
St. Patrick, the downtown school, is one of them.
Since 2008, literacy and numeracy initiatives have helped St. Patrick consistently boost its EQAO scores. In addition, many of the students who didn’t meet provincial standards in reading and writing in Grade 3 were hitting the mark by the time they got to Grade 6.
The trend doesn’t end there. Close to 54 per cent of Hamilton schools improved their EQAO outcomes, on average, over the past six years. Of those, many had an above-average proportion of low-income students.
The problem is for almost every school on the uptick, there was one whose marks declined. And, in several cases, those schools that are scoring worse are the ones already trailing behind.
About a dozen years ago, the top administrators at the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board made a bold decision.
“We felt for many reasons there needed to be extra work, extra support, for our socio-economically disadvantaged schools,” says Pat Daly, the veteran board chair. “So we put together what we call our Equal Opportunities Initiative.”
The project started with a handful of inner city schools, providing additional in-class support, extracurricular opportunities and after-school programs. On top of that, it ensures kids are clothed, fed and able to access the same types of trips and out-of-class experiences as their more affluent peers.
It’s made a “big, big difference,” says Daly, whose board has since expanded the initiative to 10 schools citywide. “I think it’s really become part of the culture of this system that we understand that equal opportunity means more for some than others.”
The city’s public school board shares the philosophy.
This year, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board invested $107,000 – or an additional $10 per student – in 30 of its neediest elementary schools. Among other interventions, it also created an equity fund to help offset barriers, such as fees for class trips, for at-risk kids across the system.
“Student achievement is our No. 1 business,” says Jessica Brennan, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board chair. “If students are not achieving to their own satisfaction, as well as to what they in fact could be getting from a school environment, then it’s our job to make sure we put all the right resources into that.”
For the most part, funding for these initiatives flows through the Ministry of Education’s Learning Opportunities Grant, which specifically targets students at higher risk for academic difficulties. In 2013-14, it earmarked $14 million in funding for elementary schools at the two local boards combined.
The province’s focus is twofold, says education minister Liz Sandals. It’s about raising the bar for all students, as well as closing the gaps.
But focusing on a problem and fixing it are clearly different things.
Consider the numbers for the city’s most vulnerable schools:
Even with additional cash and interventions, only 10 of the 20 schools with the highest proportions of non-English speaking students or less-educated parents improved their average EQAO scores in the last six years.
In those schools where low-income students were most highly concentrated, just over half improved their pass rates. And when it came to schools with the highest proportions of special needs students, it was an even 70 per cent.
“I guess I would look at it as a positive that we have made headway,” says the Catholic board’s Daly. “But in saying that, clearly we’ve got a way to go.”
The question is, how do you get there?
Education experts and local stakeholders generally agree school-based interventions are part of the solution. And in that respect, they commend the Hamilton boards.
But there’s more to it.
For Kugler, the U of T prof, the way teachers are trained and principals are promoted, as well as the way directors of education hold people accountable. all contribute to the persisting gap.
Money and resources are important, “but they don’t make it happen.” They help it happen, he says, if other conditions, such as the right attitudes and beliefs, are there.
Kugler, a former principal at Nelson Mandela Park public school in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, knows change is a tough sell, particularly because it will demand holding bad educators accountable. Principals and teachers’ unions, he says, will undoubtedly push back.
But he thinks it’s a challenge worth taking on.
“If you want to make the system work for everybody, it means that you’re going to have to piss off a lot of people,” he says.
For other experts, the funding and resources needed to make a difference are there. They’re perhaps just not being directed toward the most effective interventions or the right schools.
One reason for that, says Schoolhouse Consulting director Paul Bennett, is that many schools and school boards simply aren’t capitalizing on EQAO data to help them improve.
It’s the test’s greatest weakness and its Achilles’ heel, he says, “and it has a lot to do with people offering rationalizations for why kids aren’t doing better.
“They say ‘we’re a poor community, what did you expect?’
Ontario’s education ministry provides funding to at-risk or low-achieving elementary schools through its Learning Opportunities Grant. Hamilton’s Catholic and public school boards receive funding through six LOG allocations. Here’s a closer look at those allocations as well as how much money was given to local elementary schools this year.
What it is: Provides funding based on social and economic indicators that are linked to a higher risk of academic challenges. Boards have considerable latitude in determining how this money is spent.
How much: $11.5 million
Literacy and math outside the school day allocation
What it is: Provides funding for additional math and literacy support to students at risk of not meeting curriculum standards and the requirements of Ontario’s Grade 10 literacy test.
How much: $507,000
Student success allocation
What it is: Supports students in grades 7 through 12 who may not otherwise achieve their educational goals. This funding is to be used to increase opportunities for students to take part in school-to-work, school-to-apprenticeship or school-to-college programs.
How much: $862,000
Grades 7 and 8 student success literacy and numeracy teachers allocation
What it is: Provides funding to hire additional teachers
How much: $786,000
School effectiveness framework allocation
What it is: Supports schools and boards in assessing school effectiveness so that improvement plans can be put in place.
How much: $543,000
What it is: Provides funding for extra help for students who are not meeting provincial standards in reading, writing and math.
How much: $200,000
On top of the LOG, there are other grants available to help students. This year, Hamilton’s Catholic and public school boards benefitted from additional tutoring, summer learning programs and the Ontario Focused Intervention Partnership, which provides funding to schools struggling on EQAO tests.
“Well, we expect that the better teachers are going to be asked to go there,” he adds. “We expect that more resources will be applied there, more tutoring ... We expect there will be a focus on professional development.”
Terry Cooke, the CEO of the Hamilton Community Foundation, knows school-based interventions are key. Still, what he thinks will make the biggest difference for low-income and low-achieving kids is an attempt by board and city officials to move toward a healthier income mix in all Hamilton schools and neighbourhoods.
“The biggest predictor of success remains in the cross-section of peers that you attend school with,” says Cooke, the former regional chair. “We know that it’s good for middle class and affluent kids, frankly, to rub elbows and learn with kids from the lower end of the spectrum. But it’s really important for kids who come from economic hardship to have a window into another possible world.”
There’s no single answer for how to best close the gap between high- and low-achieving schools. One thing, however, is clear.
If schools boards, the province and other stakeholders don’t act, the consequences could be dire for local kids. And the risk is particularly high for those who fall behind early.
According to a report recently released by the EQAO, more than half of Ontario students who do not meet the provincial standard on reading tests in grades 3 and 6 fail the province’s high school literacy test, which is mandatory for graduation.
And for those who don’t graduate, a litany of poor outcomes tends to follow.
“Roll the tape ahead 60 or 70 years and you’ve got exactly what you saw in Code Red – a 21-year gap in age of death between the best and worst neighbourhoods,” says Jim Dunn, referring to the oft-cited Spectator series. “That is the direct consequence of this.”
Dunn, an associate professor in McMaster’s department of health, aging and society, understands the issue of inequity in Hamilton schools well. In fact, he was a member of the local delegation that travelled stateside to meet Rusk, the urban strategist, a couple of years back.
As Dunn knows, low achievement can lead to more than just physical health challenges down the line. Those with poor educational outcomes are also more likely to experience mental health challenges, family breakups, criminal involvement and early reliance on social assistance.
“All of those things have socioeconomic gradients, and they all run in the same direction,” he says.
But there are also economic effects. According to researchers, individuals who don’t finish high school face fewer job prospects and less earning potential than higher achieving peers.
They are, in Rusk’s words, Hamilton’s “greatest undeveloped economic asset.”
“If we have large parts of our community that, frankly, are dead-ended economically, who won’t have access to the kind of skilled jobs with decent wages that the future will demand, we’re leaving a huge amount of talent on the bench,” he says. “We have an obligation to make sure that all kids have an opportunity to learn, to prosper and to have a brighter future. And part of that is living in neighbourhoods that are not segregated and participating in school environments where every kid believes that they have the potential to go on and be a leader, to be educated, to be employed in a meaningful way and to be able to support their own families.
“Right now, in a number of inner city neighbourhoods, that’s not the reality.”
The Hamilton Spectator
All about EQAO
It’s a four-letter word that can strike fear in even the most stoic educators — EQAO. But what exactly is behind the acronym? And what is the data used for? Here’s some key background information on what’s commonly referred to as “the test.”
What is EQAO?
EQAO stands for the Education Quality and Accountability Office — an arms-length agency established by the Ontario government in 1996 in response to recommendations from the Royal Commission on Learning. Its focus is to monitor student achievement and assure the public that all students are assessed in the same way and in line with an established set of standards.
Each year, the EQAO administers standardized tests to students in grades 3, 6 and 9, as well as the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, which all students, including those in private schools, must pass in order to graduate.
How are the tests administered?
The Grade 3 and 6 assessments are written over two weeks in late May or early June and test students in three areas — reading, writing and math. Students have two hours to complete each of three test booklets — two for language and one for math.
The Grade 9 assessments test students in math only and take place over three weeks in January. Students have an hour to complete each of two test booklets.
The OSSLT is written by Grade 10 students on a single day in late March. Students have 75 minutes to complete each of two test booklets.
How are the tests developed?
The office recruits and trains educators from across Ontario to develop test questions based on the provincial curriculum. Potential questions then undergo a lengthy review — in fact, it can take three years before a question actually appears in front of students.
The tests are administered and overseen by classroom teachers — and occasionally by quality assurance monitors, whom the office assigns to drop in on a random group of schools during testing. Once they’re done, the EQAO collects the tests, scoring them by machine and qualified scorers — typically current or retired teachers. They’re marked on a four-point scale, where three is the provincial standard.
What happens to the results?
Results are gathered at the student, school, school board and provincial levels. Students and parents receive individual student reports, while reports for schools and boards are posted on the EQAO’s public website — www.eqao.com. The results are intended to provide high-quality data that can be used by the ministry, boards and schools to improve student learning. The office also develops and publishes reports based on its analysis of the data to highlight trends or areas of concern.
What does it cost?
According to office CEO Bruce Rodriguez, the test costs about $16 per student to administer, or $31 million annually. Funded by the Ministry of Education, the agency’s budget includes staff salaries as well as all test- and research-related expenses.
Why is EQAO important?
Liz Sandals, Ontario’s education minister, told The Spectator the data matters because it’s essentially “the temperature-taking” for the whole system — “but, unlike a normal thermometer, it doesn’t just take your temperature, it also tells you how you can get better.”
Currently, EQAO tests are the only tool at the province’s disposal to objectively gauge whether students are learning what they should be — and learning well — at Ontario’s 72 school boards.
What can the test tell you?
Educators often describe EQAO data as “a snapshot” that can tell you how a student performed on a given day or week in the areas of math and literacy. But even a snapshot can reveal important information about where a child, school or board may be struggling — and what areas teachers can target to improve results.
What can’t the test tell you?
The data alone can’t tell you whether a school or teacher is good or bad. You also can’t learn much from year-to-year fluctuations in the results, since a few students can have a big effect on the results of a class of, say, 25 kids.
On top of that, EQAO is limited in what it can tell you about individual students. For instance, it leaves out valuable information about a child’s character and skills that fall outside the defined test areas. It’s also limited in what it can tell you about a student’s progress, partly because students are only assessed across four broad achievement levels every three years.
Source: Education Quality and Accountability Office
Want to know how you would do on EQAO? Try our interactive test.
Grade 6 Reading
How we did it
Last fall, The Spectator obtained six years of standardized test results from Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office. That information included the percentage of students who met the provincial standard in reading, writing and math at each of Hamilton’s 143 Catholic and public elementary schools between 2008 and 2013. On top of that, the data was broken down by grade level and gender — that is, the percentage of boys and girls that met the Ontario standard on any given test.
The Spectator then cross-referenced the results with socioeconomic information obtained from the Ministry of Education. The school-level data was calculated using information from Statistics Canada’s 2006 census, the Ontario School Information System, which tracks student population characteristics, and postal codes collected by individual schools.
For the purposes of this investigation, The Spectator analyzed results at those schools for which all data was available. The EQAO omitted data in cases where there were fewer than 15 test takers — or, in the case of the 2012-13 results, fewer than 10 — in order to protect against the potential disclosure of students’ personal information. The office recently changed its omission rules to align with ministry standards for data suppression.
Click here to comment on this story
By veryoldguy | APRIL 13, 2014 09:54 AM
$31 million a year for testing kids should be spent on helping kids in math and English. Standardized testing is a crock. If schools "teach to the test" their scores improve and the kids learn how to write standardized tests. Breakfast, lunch, and after school programs are a much better investment in kids who need extra help that their homes can't provide. The Americans are backing away from testing but Ontario seems to want to appease it's "stakeholders".
By gord | APRIL 13, 2014 07:28 AM
Interesting feature. But have to say that the layout on the print page had far too much white space - it was surprisingly distracting. The online version was significantly better presented.