Education

Focus on communities, report instructs, as student achievement lags


The NWT education system needs to do a better job supporting students in smaller communities, an internal review has found.

Echoing conclusions reached by the Office of the Auditor General last week, the Department of Education, Culture, and Employment’s internal evaluation found “dramatic and alarming” differences between large and small communities in all measurements of success – including early childhood development, standardized testing, and graduation rates.

The evaluation marks the halfway point of the NWT government’s 10-year effort to renew education in the territory.

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Started in 2013, education renewal is meant to target concerns like student achievement gaps.

The internal review found graduation rates for small communities hovered at 33 percent, less than half the rate in Yellowknife or regional centres.

Only one quarter of young students in small communities were developmentally “on track,” the review declared, compared to around half in Yellowknife.

Far fewer students in smaller communities took the Alberta Achievement Test and, of those who did, only 20 percent received an acceptable score, said Jennifer Young, the NWT government’s director of education planning, research, and evaluation.

There is a wide and problematic gap between grades given by teachers and achievement test results, Young said. “This presents an issue for us because it means the teachers and the tests are not measuring the same thing.”

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John MacDonald, the assistant deputy minister responsible for education, said there are no plans to scrap the Alberta Achievement Test.

Divorcing the NWT education system from Alberta wouldn’t be possible given the curriculum the territory uses, he said. Instead, work is needed to increase the number of students taking the tests – and reduce the differences between teacher marks and test results.

The government’s own evaluation states all 45 initiatives it started under education renewal should now be reviewed, to see if they sufficiently improve outcomes for students in small communities.

The evaluation found that programming, services, and funding to NWT schools was equally distributed – itself a problem.

“Just because programming is provided equally and funding for schools is evenly distributed, this does not mean it is fairly or equitably distributed,” Young said.

MacDonald said funding to small communities would not increase, but more supports would be found for community schools and students. (So far, the territory said, $13.5 million has been spent on education renewal – on top of the $158.4-million annual education budget.)

How to achieve equity between small communities and bigger centres has not yet been decided, said Young. A government action plan – responding to both last week’s audit and this internal review – is forthcoming.

Some renewal programs were found to be working well, including counselling services and Northern Distance Learning, a program that connects students in remote communities by video link. Their expansion is recommended in the report.

The review also suggested some improvement in the wellbeing of teachers and students. Since 2010, the percentage of students who felt accepted by their teachers rose from 72 to 77 percent. A 2018 survey found 84 percent of teachers in the territory were satisfied with their jobs.

How to get rid of ‘social passing’

Nunakput MLA Jackie Jacobson had strong words for the education minister on Friday.

In an exchange with education minister RJ Simpson, Jacobson said the education department was “failing our children” as he called for an end to social passing – the practice whereby children are moved to the next grade even if they have not kept up academically.

“We’re treating them no better than cattle to a slaughterhouse … and we’re setting them up for failure,” said Jacobson.

While the department doesn’t have a policy on social passing – and says social passing doesn’t officially exist in the NWT system – MacDonald said, under the “broad umbrella of inclusive schooling,” a student can be either be promoted, placed into the next grade, or retained at the end of the school year.

“Those are three very different options that a teacher, a student, and parents should be involved in,” he said. If students are placed in the next grade, he added, they are often on modified programs.

Overall, the evaluation – and the audit – found Grade 10 was a “bottleneck” where students don’t fully transition out of the grade. “This is in part because of the way student transitions are supported from grades one to nine, and then they’re not ready for Grade 10 when they enter those courses,” Young said.

The fix must come earlier on in the education system, the review found. Keeping students in Grade 10 for longer than one year showed lower graduation rates than those who finished the grade in one go.

Not enough data to gauge success

Completion of the internal evaluation was complicated by the lack of available data regarding each of the 45 initiatives. The Office of the Auditor General had identified similar, glaring gaps in data collection and monitoring of the education system.

Young said most of the renewal projects “lacked formal program design, implementation, or monitoring plans,” as many initiatives were undertaken by schools and education bodies on an “ad-hoc” basis.

“In many cases, in those early stages, it was an almost organic process where we hadn’t quite formalized some of our approaches to designing and implementing new initiatives,” MacDonald said.

To improve the kind of data the department has available, MacDonald said, modernizing laws will be needed.

Way to measure graduation changes

Jacobson said he was shocked by the audit’s finding that the territory, in 2017, graduated just 44 percent of its students. This was in stark comparison to the government’s claimed 72 percent, using what Jacobson called an “outdated method” to calculate graduation.

“We are graduating less than half of our kids and [the department] is telling us they’re closer to three quarters. Now that’s a cause for red alert across our territory,” Jacobson said.

The NWT says it has now implemented a new method of calculating graduation rates.

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