Opting out: when students get a better education by not going to school

Joel Westheimer, University of Ottawa professor and research chair, said schools should be less focused on standardized testing.
Joel Westheimer, University of Ottawa professor and research chair, said schools should be less focused on standardized testing.

While some parents in Ontario threaten to opt-out of sex education, others are more interested in opting out of what’s seen as a more an integral part of education: testing.

“Teachers have been tied to having to teach a very rigid curriculum,” said Joel Westheimer, a University of Ottawa professor and research chair.

On Sept. 16, at Octopus Books at 251 Bank St., he launched a new book, What Kind of Citizen? Educating Our Children for the Common Good, that critiques the current education system for being too focused on standardized testing.

In Ontario, standardized tests are created and administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO). These tests assess the math and literacy skills of students in Grades 3, 6 and 9.

“Kids call it evil questions attacking Ontario,” said Westheimer.

In his book, Westheimer writes that over the past two decades, he’s seen the focus on test preparation cause teachers to teach more math and language arts at the expense of visual art, social science, computers, health and physical education.

“Instead of measuring the things that we care about,” he said, “we start to care about the things that we can measure.”

Erika Shaker, director of the Education Project for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), said the research done by the Ottawa-based policy research group has found that wealthier children tend to do better on standardized tests—their schools, in turn, receive better funding, increasing the disparity in quality of education along class lines.

Shaker has a daughter in the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. After discussing her concerns about standardized testing, she said her daughter chose not to participate in the Grade 3 EQAO test.

“I didn’t see it as an effective use of class time,” Shaker said.

On the day of the test, she said her daughter did classwork at home in the morning and went to school once the testing period was over. Shaker said the school was fine with it: “It was a non-issue.”

More parents across the province have been choosing to opt-out of the tests. Jennifer Adams, director of the Ottawa-Carleton School Board said her board “strongly encourages” students to write the tests.

At the book launch, Westheimer said that while he supports the opt-out movement, he isn’t entirely against standardized testing—assessing schools as a barometer for how things are going can be a good thing.
“It’s not like there are big, bad, evil administrators trying to harm children,” he said. “Everyone’s trying to do what they think is the best thing.”

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