When Asking For 3/4 + 6 – 1/4 is Racist

Oh, Canada.

We’re very late to this one and it is way outside our territory, but it feels necessary to post something. In December the Ontario Superior Court, in a 3-0 decision, ruled that requiring prospective teachers to pass Ontario’s Mathematics Proficiency Test (MPT) violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The reason? According to the Court, the requirement unjustifiably

… has a disproportionate adverse impact on entry to the teaching profession for racialized teacher candidates …


We’re not going to work hard to unravel the nonsense of this one. A very good report on the Court’s decision can be read here, and there is a recent update here.  We will, however, make a few comments based upon our cursory reading of and around the judgment.

The court case was raised by the Ontario Teacher Candidates’ Council, largely the creation of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, the professional body for Ontario’s teachers. The OTTC was seemingly created specifically for the purpose of fighting the MPT requirement. In a nutshell, OTTC believes that

… this test is not equitable, fair, justified or backed by data. 

The OTTC fleshes out their objections in a Position Letter. Unsurprisingly we’re not swayed, but we don’t want to get too far into those weeds; we make a few comments on the MPT below. It is worth noting, however, that the supposed effect of the MPT requirement on “racialised groups” appears decidedly low on the list of OTTC’s concerns. That is, OTTC’s objections to the MPT are far more fundamental than the narrower grounds argued in the OSC court case. We also have a bit more to say on that below.

Is the Mathematics Proficiency Test racist? No of course not, at least not in any (once) standard use of the term. Indeed, the OSC judgment makes clear that Education Quality and Accountability Office, who were responsible for creating the test, went to long, long lengths to try make the test equitable. So, what gives?

In summary, the OSC’s judgment seems to be based around three points:

1) Racialized candidates perform significantly worse on the MPT.

2) The lack of discriminatory intent in the MPT requirement is irrelevant under Canada’s Charter.

3) There are available practical and less discriminatory alternatives to requiring the MPT.

Regarding (1), there seems to be no argument that, generally, racialized candidates do worse on the MPT. (We won’t attempt to pick apart the phrase “racialized candidates”, although some picking wouldn’t go astray, and the OSC didn’t seem to do a whole lot of picking.) The Court did not appear very concerned, however, with why racialized candidates do worse. Presumably because of (3), the Court regarded this question as irrelevant. Perhaps, but perhaps not. We regard the fact of (1) to be something that requires careful consideration when arguing (3). We’ll return to this point.

Regarding (2), we have a lot of sympathy with this general stance. History, and the Present, is full of crazy, racist laws, but where the blatantly racist intent of those laws was/is still difficult to prove to a legal standard. To a decent extent, if something quacks and walks like a racist duck then it is a racist duck. But here, there is no plausible suggestion of discriminatory intent, and there are good reasons to doubt that the MPT requirement is a discriminatory duck. What is happening is that the Canadian Charter, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of Canada, is taking a much, much broader view of discrimination. We have some sympathy with this broader view, although the Supreme Court’s interpretation seems worryingly activist, and ripe for abuse. Whether the MPT case is an instance of such abuse is not obvious to us, although we’re inclined to believe that it is. The point is argued strongly in this article.

Regarding (3), which claims, in effect, that the MPT requirement is not worth the cost, we were entirely ready to agree. We do not.

As readers of this blog, and anybody in Melbourne with good hearing, will know, we regard most ITE requirements as utter garbage. Almost none of it serves any purpose other than arbitrary hurdling in order to puff up the self-importance of pompous, half-wit education academics and soulless, half-wit apparatchiks. In particular, ACER’s numeracy test is pointless, ridiculous, inept, threatening, costly and sadistic. We carry no torch for ITE tests except in order to burn them.

But what about Ontario’s Mathematics Proficiency Test? Readers can work through two sample tests here and decide for themselves, but to us they seem fine and good. To begin, the MPT content, unlike ACER’s numeracy twaddle, seems reasonable, a pretty straight test of arithmetic, basic algebra and the like. It seems reasonable and proper to require any teacher, primary or secondary, to demonstrate a minimal understanding of this stuff. Secondly, unlike ACER’s thoroughly evil “them’s the breaks” policy, the MPT can be attempted any number of times. Thirdly, unlike ACER’S insanely exorbitant test, the first MPT, and possibly some repeat attempts, were to be free.

In summary, any general whining about Ontario’s Mathematics Proficiency Test, or the burden it supposedly imposes, seems to us to be absurd. Nonetheless, perhaps, as claimed by the Ontario Supreme Court, there is a better alternative. We are sceptical, at least of the reasons offered by the Court, and of the alternatives suggested.

The Court’s scepticism of the value of standardised testing seems to be the result of expert witness testimony, and of a “literature review” conducted by the Education Quality and Accountability Office. According to the Court, the EQAO review concluded

There is some positive correlation between teacher competency scores in mathematics and student outcomes, but this correlation is weak, with small effect sizes, and is not universal. Standardized test scores are much less related to student outcomes than are teacher certification (both general and subject-specific), teacher experience, and other contributors to teacher effectiveness.

Well, maybe. We haven’t read EQAO’s literature review, or considered carefully the Court’s reasoning, and, with too many fires burning closer to home, we do not intend to. But we’ve learned the bleeding obvious by hard work, that no education “literature review” and no education “expert” should ever, ever be taken on face value.

As for the alternatives, the Court again refers to the EQAO review:

Increasing the quality and quantity of required mathematics courses at the preservice (ITE) level was one of the most helpful steps toward improving student outcomes. Research from the province of Quebec, where student math test scores are high relative to the rest of Canada, attributes that province’s student achievement to “a uniquely strong emphasis on requiring trainee teachers to undertake more courses in both mathematics methodology and mathematics content.”

Well, yeah, sure. Although this comes back to our query of (1): if such courses are so successful why would this not be reflected in significantly better test scores? In any case, wouldn’t the MPT be encouraging, effectively mandating, the implementation of such courses? It is in their answer to such suggestions that the Court possibly loses their tentative touch with reality:

The Respondent relies on the likelihood that the MPT requirement will encourage teacher candidates to pursue math courses prior to licensing to justify adopting the MPT. We would agree that, if candidates take math courses in order to be able to pass the MPT, it is rationally connected to the goal of enhancing teacher mathematical knowledge and confidence as effective teachers of mathematics. However, the same goal would be more directly served by introducing a math course requirement in B.Ed. programs.

So, just trust the education faculties to teach the maths, without any external motivation or check? In Australia, that trust in the education faculties works out swimmingly. Is there any reason to assume that such trust in Canada would work out any better?

Again, we do not know Canada, we have not read the EQAO literature review, and we have only given the Ontario Superior Court judgment a quick read. Perhaps there is some sense and some deeper truth that we have missed. We very much doubt it.

46 Replies to “When Asking For 3/4 + 6 – 1/4 is Racist”

  1. This court decision has weighed on my mind.
    The need for a highly skilled workforce, in this case teachers, comes out of the mouths of almost all politicians et al across the spectrum. The Maths Proficiency Test is a reasonable starting point for maths teachers.
    A highly skilled workforce is sabotaged by this court decision.
    Maths is already a concern for a large number of primary teachers who are not proficient to teach the grade 5 and 6 curriculum. This is widely known but is not being solved. The maths PD’s given by the ‘experts’ have not delivered the remedy (I’m not surprised). Parents rightly have an expectation that teachers at the least know the subject; the question begs in light of the court decision, Why have teacher training institutes?

    1. Thanks, john. I didn’t give the background, but Ontario’s MPT was brought in exactly because of such concerns. Possibly it was brought in too quickly, either politically or administratively, but the Court decision is crazy and damaging. It is also not clear, however, that the Court decision will stand.

  2. Thanks, Sir Humphrey. Your experience with ACU’s practice LANTITE is very interesting. Have you taken the real LANTITE? If so, how would compare the practice version with the real thing?

    1. Thanks again. A couple years back I roped my self into tutoring a lovely kid, who needed to pass the LANTITE and, for various reasons, really struggled with the numeracy part. The experience convinced me, more than ever, that ACER should be declared a terrorist organisation. The numeracy questions were utterly insane, exactly in the manner that you describe the ACU practice. So, my question is, was the ACU practice revolting because the lecturers were nitwits, or because the test accurately reflected ACER’s lunacy? Or, both?

    2. I had an interesting experience sitting the LANTITE. The invigilators were quite bossy. After being herded into the room to sit the test, I made the mistake of testing the pen they provided, and was chided that I shouldn’t do anything at all until I’d been given explicit permission to do so. Otherwise I would be failed immediately. I carefully checked my work because I wanted to make sure I did well (not that it matters, but I would have been embarrassed to score low). This meant I needed a second piece of paper. I was chided for that as well – “write smaller next time!” The test itself was not memorable. But it had been a long time since I’d been put in my place in such a way!

      I would be interested to read Sir Humphrey’s description when he has done it. I imagine he would be able to write more evocatively than me about it.

            1. I guess my point was, a lot of the tests and stuff for preservice teachers (and teachers) kind of seem to have been designed from the perspective of looking down on them, and treating them as having low status and questionable merit. So maybe adding these tests, ostensibly to improve teacher status and quality, counterintuitively lowers teacher status even further?

              1. That’s my point. It may not have been bad for you, but it is most definitely, gratuitously, pointlessly, Eichmannly bad for many trainee teachers. It is evil.

    1. Good question. Some comments were removed, by request. I think some replies may have been caught up in the removal process, but all the non-removed comments seem to be there now.

      1. There is a common approach to determining who is qualified. Give people a powerpoint presentation, follow it up with a multiple choice test, and the computer gives them a mark. Those who pass are qualified; those who do not are not qualified. It’s so easy. LANTITE, health and safety at work, citizenship, driving a taxi – all use the same approach (although LANTITE skips the powerpoint presentation). What could be simpler?

        1. Up to you. It hardly hurts to have links in two spots. Then, if a reader only reads half the post, they’ll still be sure to see a link.

  3. Just for curiosity sake I did the practice tests myself. A couple of observations:

    1. For anyone with GOOD primary school mathematics, they are not hard to pass BUT

    2. The majority of the questions are REALLY STUPID, questions that I would never expect to see beyond first semester Year 7 in a high school (things like “expanded form” to demonstrate understanding of place value) so I really question their usefulness.

    3. Section 3 (pedagogy) was almost exactly as Terry described it (except it didn’t show a PPT beforehand, you were expected to read the document(s) yourself before taking the test).

      1. 40% fall under the first category, 80% fall into both.

        In my opinion, whomever (did I use correct grammar there?) wrote these questions does not have a proper grasp of what being a teacher ACTUALLY involves.

        1. I liked (most of) the maths questions a lot more than that. The pedagogy questions were absurd. It’s “whoever”.

          1. Damn. I’ll keep trying on the grammar front.

            The questions are better than NAPLAN, that is easy to judge. As to whether or not they are any good for their purpose…

            A few were what I would call “good” questions. Maybe more than what I am suggesting, there were quite a few that needed more than one thinking step, although with the options provided it was easy to guess the correct answer without resorting to the (provided) calculator in a lot of cases, which undid a lot of the goodness for me.

            Such is the nature of multiple choice though: easy to mark, doesn’t tell you much about what a student does and does not know.

            1. Multiple choice questions tell you nothing about what a student does or does not know. If I give the answer (c), what does that tell you?

                1. If we are taking a poll on teachers opposed to Multiple Choice assessment items, count me with the “Ayes”.

                  I have no comment to make in support as I feel it has all been said many times to no avail.

  4. Principals play a role in ensuring that teachers are qualified for the position. Just this week, I saw an advertisement for a mathematics/PE teacher in a 7-10 school. What do you imagine will be the qualifications of the successful candidate?

    I have also seen an advertisement for mathematics/generalist teachers in a 7-10 school. When I asked the school what does “generalist” entail, I was told “anything”.

    1. I agree. Similarly, I always wonder about this when AMSI quotes – as evidence of a mathematics teacher shortage – the statistic about how many mathematics classes are taught by non-mathematics teachers. Is it possible that schools just don’t always value specific mathematics training in junior years? Maybe schools just don’t really hire for it and think a good teacher in any area can do the job just as well? (And maybe they’re even right a lot of the time?) I’m not saying there isn’t shortage of mathematics teachers, but that statistic is put forward as evidence over and over and I don’t find it convincing. I would be curious to hear what principals think.

      1. The principals I have spoken to (at the pub and off the record) say one thing consistently: staffing is their biggest issue each year.

        Government school principals have rather tight budgets to work within and sometimes it is finding someone who ticks enough of the boxes.

        Private schools are a very different matter. Of course, there it really comes down to what the school (or principal) really values in their school. If Mathematics isn’t on the list (and it often is not) then it is again a matter of filling the gap as cheaply as possible and hoping the education outcomes are not diabolical.

      2. Whenever I read such reports about out-of-field teaching, the first thing I look for is the definition of “out-of-field”; the second thing I look for is the source of the data.

      3. Thanks, wst. My concern is much more the weaknesses of “trained” mathematics teachers, which I see as the much larger problem. But your question is interesting. I am sure you are correct, that principals do not value sufficiently, or much at all, the strength of lower year maths teachers.

        1. Fair enough. I guess we all have stories of being shocked by a mathematics teacher not knowing something. On the other hand, maybe they know the curriculum and the system in Victoria really well. I guess they know where the students are coming from and where they are going.

          I am still getting my head around what is and isn’t in the curriculum and all my assumptions are wrong. For instance, it seems like Victorian students don’t do much geometry at all? Is that right? I’ve started carrying a compass (the kind for drawing circles) around as a prop to find out how many students know what it is for. So far, it seems like this isn’t something they do in school anymore? They definitely don’t seem to learn how to bisect a line segment with a straight edge and compass. Maybe that’s fair enough though. I don’t know.

          Also, when I was teaching linear functions to a year 10 class, I planned my explanation of some things assuming they would know minimal conditions for when two triangles are similar. But not one student even knew what similar triangles were. I checked afterwards and it seems like “similar triangles” was just covered fleetingly within the context of making scale diagrams. They were a big deal when I went to school. Maybe they do it really thoroughly at the end of Year 10 though. Sometimes I feel like a relic.

          ETA: I checked some textbooks that I have, and it does seem that this stuff is in them. I guess it’s just that a lot of classes skip these bits. I don’t know yet.

          1. Geometry has all but disappeared from VCE.

            It is still examined in HSC (NSW)

            Two states, one Australian Curriculum.

            Victorian schools seem to do very little geometry. Angles at a point, angles in a polygon, angles on parallel lines, not much else. Maybe some circle theorems and congruent/similar triangles if the teacher likes geometry.

            It is the final year curriculum that really matters, not what the 7-10 curriculum says.

            1. High school students could learn about geometry, proof, and logic by studying Euclid’s Elements. Book 1 would suffice.

  5. This was on the telly today. The first woman who got the question passed, then this happened. First thing she said was, ‘well it’s not a quarter.’ Hopefully they offer a more inclusive question next time.

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