Ontario School Boards Require Clearer Guidance to Collect Student Census Data

Recent Ontario legislation requiring school boards to collect identity-based data is an important step toward greater equity. However, issues with implementation have meant results have been delayed, inconsistent or limited. To facilitate the collection of high quality and comparable data, government should provide clearer guidance and more complete data collection templates to school boards.

Author: Karen Robson

Ontario’s policymakers and practitioners need better educational data to equalize postsecondary opportunities for students, especially for those students who have historically been marginalized. In 2017, the Government of Ontario introduced the Anti-Racism Act and the Education Equity Action Plan, which required schools across the province to collect and publicly report on identity-based data. This was excellent news for researchers concerned about the dearth of education-related data in Ontario. Ideally, the data collected could be centralized and made available for policy research and system improvement. If not centralized, the data could at least allow for “meta-analyses,” which are akin to literature reviews of data.

According to the legislation, each of Ontario’s 72 school boards must collect data in the form of a census administered to all students in the board. Further, the Anti-Racism Act states that by January 1, 2023, boards must collect data on the Indigenous identity, race, religion and ethnic origin of students “as it relates to [their] academic performance, special education received and suspensions or expulsions, [etc.].” Together, HEQCO and I planned to retrieve these data from public reports and identify opportunities to compare results across all 72 boards. Depending on the data the schools report, we could examine the effects of being racialized (among other factors) on high school graduation and other indicators of PSE access across Ontario. This would allow us to identify systemic issues and develop strategies for addressing them.

Unfortunately, two issues have prevented us from conducting this work. First, the timeline for collection has not been straightforward. Through informal conversations, I’ve learned many boards interpreted the legislation as requiring that they initiate, not complete, their collection work by this date. At the time of writing, only about 25% of boards have produced public results of their student census on their websites (a finding corroborated by a similar study of anti-racism policies undertaken by People for Education). This is not surprising considering the capacity for individual boards to take on this work — only a quarter of school boards have a dedicated research department, and in many cases, the research department is only one person.

Second, designing a census is no small task, particularly for school boards with such resource constraints. Experts in education data and survey design understand the nuances of questionnaires and the potential pitfalls of asking questions in certain ways, particularly to children and youth. Because self-reported race is at the core of this exercise, it is incredibly important that the questions are asked in ways that are proven to be the least problematic. It takes years of experience to understand the finer points of survey design and administration, and asking tens of thousands of students to respond to questions that are reliable (i.e., they elicit the same kind of response each time) and valid (i.e., the questions mean what the researcher intended them to mean) is essential for drawing meaningful conclusions from the data.

Among the boards that shared data so far, the government-provided wording for certain demographic questions has been helpful. Our scan suggests that most boards are reporting descriptive statistics about students’ first language, Indigenous identity, ethnic and cultural background, racial identity, religious affiliation, gender identity, sexual orientation and special education needs using similar types of demographic questions for students in Grades 7 to 12. That said, only 11 of the 72 reports we examined also had questions about student experiences and outcomes, and there was little consistency between the questions and the types of school experiences and outcomes the boards reported. Without these data, we will have little to no understanding of how students with certain demographic characteristics are being advantaged or disadvantaged along education pathways — why some students have the opportunity to attend postsecondary, for example, and others do not.

The Ministry of Education should provide more guidance to boards to solve both of these issues. Further government oversight could standardize the census process and ensure the data being collected lend themselves to the kind of meta-analyses — or, better, centralized data sources — needed to inform improvements. Templates for boards should offer specific wording for questions and clarity about when and how to administer surveys (e.g., during which time of year and how often) as well as about what information to report publicly. In order for this exercise to facilitate equity improvements, the data must be meaningful and consistent. Boards should reveal the associations between various demographic characteristics and other factors, including student achievement (grades and courses taken), suspensions and feelings of belonging.

We can build an evidence base for improving education in this province, but only when we collect high quality and comparable data. Ontario’s legislation is an important step towards equity. The next step is to ensure it actually leads to change.

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