Without Province-wide Data, School Boards Help Us Piece Together Pandemic Impacts on Student Pathways

HEQCO partnered with multiple Ontario school boards to understand how pandemic learning disruptions impacted postsecondary education (PSE) pathways. Our work with the TDSB revealed impacts on student pathways were not as negative as some feared. Our partnerships with three school boards in Central-Eastern Ontario reinforced this finding while providing insight into regional differences. These boards did not see the same increases in graduation or PSE confirmations observed at the TDSB. Instead, more students opted to take a fifth year of high school and several noted feeling unprepared in light of pandemic disruptions. Students with Special Education Needs saw increases in graduation rates and PSE confirmations in contrast to TDSB findings. These differences underscore the need for a provincial data infrastructure to help chart differential regional impacts of major disruptive forces.

Author: Natalie Pilla

International evidence gathered during the pandemic raised important concerns about the potential negative impacts of extended school closures on Ontario student pathways. European nations collecting data documented significant learning losses, experienced disproportionately among students who already face disadvantages. In the U.S., colleges and universities saw dramatic drops in enrolment in 2020 and 2021 relative to 2019.

HEQCO’s collaborations with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), most recently captured in this report, revealed that pandemic impacts were not as negative as some anticipated (at least in Toronto). In some ways, they were positive: TDSB students graduating during the pandemic (in 2019-20 and 2020-21) were more likely to graduate and confirm an offer to attend PSE than students who graduated in 2018-19. Grade 12 students also saw grade increases compared to the 2018-19 cohort.

While positive, these outcomes reflect policy changes that froze student grades and reduced the weighting of final exams at the end of the 2019-20 academic year. They likely mask important learning losses — and the full extent of which is difficult to measure, given a lack of standardized testing in the province. In 2019-20, Ontario suspended its standardized tests run by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) in response to pandemic-related stressors. EQAO tests underwent major changes before being re-administered and are not comparable with pre-pandemic test results. Other jurisdictions that completed large-scale assessments of student learning suggested serious and unequal learning impacts of the COVID 19 pandemic.

To widen our perspective beyond the TDSB, HEQCO partnered with three school boards in Central-Eastern Ontario. Together, we examined aggregated administrative data on students who graduated between 2019 and 2021. In 2022, we held interviews with Grade 11 and 12 students at one board and administrators at two others. While not directly comparable with data sources from Toronto, these data broaden our understanding of students’ experiences during the pandemic.

Like the TDSB, these school boards did not see dramatically negative impacts on students’ PSE pathways. Distinct from the TDSB, graduation rates did not increase but stayed roughly consistent between 2019 and 2022. Interviews with students revealed those who planned to pursue PSE were concerned about their level of preparation, particularly around their ability to complete assessments — the same students had not completed long, timed, high-stakes exams in their final years of high school. One student shared the following: “I know a lot of people lost motivation and studying skills during the pandemic. We didn’t get to write the literacy test … and in general, we didn’t get to write a lot of exams.”

The proportion of TDSB students who pursued PSE after four years of high school increased between 2019 and 2020, but the Central-Eastern boards saw small increases in the proportion of students who took a fifth (or ‘victory lap’) year instead. A secondary school principal explained: “We certainly noticed that our returning fifth-year population was higher the last two years. My assumption is they weren’t sure, weren’t ready [and] didn’t know what to do next.”

Student interviewees planning on taking a fifth year echoed this sentiment, citing a desire for more time to address gaps in their preparation for PSE and determine their next steps. One Grade 12 student commented: “I feel like I haven’t really figured out what I want to do … I feel like if there wasn’t COVID, I probably would have been a bit more on-track earlier and been ready for postsecondary now.” HEQCO’s survey of first-year PSE students in 2020-21 also revealed that gaps in learning and preparation due to the pandemic complicated the transition to PSE for many students.

Students with Special Education Needs (SEN) had differing experiences in each region as well. Such students made up a substantial proportion (about 17%) of Ontario’s elementary and secondary population during the 2021-22 academic year. At the TDSB, students with SEN saw below-average growth in application and confirmation rates to PSE, suggesting they may require increased supports in coming years. In aggregate, students with SEN at the Central-Eastern boards fortunately did not see the same declines in graduation and PSE confirmations — in fact, they saw a slight increase. These findings underscore how a major disruptor like the pandemic can have different impacts for different groups of students across the province.

It’s fortunate for researchers and policymakers that school boards are willing to share their data and provide a glimpse into how student pathways are being affected, even if it is only that — a glimpse. A provincial data infrastructure would give researchers the ability to monitor impacts on access to PSE across the province and derive insights about needs that may vary regionally, and for various demographic groups. Until such an infrastructure is available, HEQCO is grateful to the school boards who take on this work with us.

With contributions from HEQCO team members Jeff Napierala, Rachel Courts and Kelly Sung.

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