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.