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GNWT over-reported graduation rates: AG report

Education, Culture and Employment Minister RJ Simpson speaks to reporter at Legistlative Assembly. Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

Attempts to address NWT’s lagging education system have all fallen short, according to a critical new Auditor General’s report.

“We found shortfalls in the department’s actions in every area of the education system that we audited,” Glen Wheeler, audit principal, told reporters in Yellowknife on Feb. 6.

Alexandre Boucher, left, Maria Pooley and Glen Wheeler of the office of the Auditor General of Canada. Wheeler presented a report on education in the Northwest Territories to the Legislative Assembly Thursday.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

The report found most Indigenous students across the territory didn’t graduate high school over the past decade and that the government was misreporting its graduation rates by nearly 30 per cent.

Indigenous graduates are below 50 per cent in Yellowknife and regional centres and less than 40 per cent in smaller communities. 

Graduation rates among non-indigenous students are nearly 80 per cent in Yellowknife and above 60 per cent in regional centres and smaller communities.

The report further noted a spike in dropout rates and repeated years starting in Grade 10. 

Wheeler pointed to especially slow action on Indigenous languages, which broadly speaking, are in decline.

The Department of Education, Culture and Employment stated it agreed with all the report’s recommendations.

Wheeler told reporters the department ought to develop a detailed plan, and set out timelines and outcomes that will keep it on track. 

“When you look at the risk of not delivering good programs and services, it becomes very obvious that the department and government needs to make education a priority,” he said.

There were shortfalls in the monitoring of educational progress and performance.

Similarly, the department never determined what was needed to offer equitable access to education, a failing felt most deeply among Indigenous students and their peers in smaller communities.

The Auditor General’s office asserts the education department has fallen flat on its attempts to monitor, support, and plan Indigenous languages and cultural programming in NWT schools.

It didn’t monitor, for example, which languages instructors were needed for, or how many there should be. It also didn’t measure student proficiency in Indigenous languages. 

Education, Culture and Employment Minister R.J. Simpson speaks to reporter at the Legislative Assembly Thursday after a critical audit of the territory's education system was tabled.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

Education, Culture and Employment Minister R.J. Simpson told reporters Thursday the government set a high bar for itself, and while it’s not hitting it, there’s progress.

He pointed to the creation of junior kindergarten as a key recent accomplishment that will pay off in coming years. 

There will be an action plan responding to the audit, which should be expected within the next few months, he said. 

“We’re learning what we need to do better. How we need to design programs better,” he said. “I think this is a good time to come into this department because we have information that we didn’t have before. We’re in a much better position.”

A graph detailing the Northwest Territories government's inflation of graduation rates. Photo Courtesy of Auditor General's Report

Among the report’s most pressing findings is the GNWT's misreported overall graduation rates in high schools, stating they climbed as high as 78 per cent in 2017 before dropping in 2018.

In fact, the territory’s students had roughly a one in two chance of graduating from 2009 to 2018, the Auditor General’s office stated. In 2017, it was 44 per cent.

The department arrived at sunnier estimates by dividing the number of graduates by the number of 18 year olds in NWT at a given year.

Department officials have recognized issues with this method, the report stated, and were apparently finding an alternative.

The report, in contrast, followed cohorts of students from Grades 10 to 12, and included students who left prior to their senior year.

A graph detailing the Northwest Territories government's inflation of graduation rates. Photo Courtesy of Auditor General's Report

The report further noted spikes of students failing to return to school and repeating grades as of Grade 10 – the year “social passing” phases out. That’s the practice of passing students along with their peers, regardless of their academic performance.

The education department also didn’t measure how many students were advancing to post-secondary education.

According to the Auditor General’s office, this is critical because the department states that three-quarters of available jobs in NWT over the next 15 years will require post-secondary education, extensive work experience, seniority, or some combination of the three.

A graph revealing the gaps between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students and smaller communities and regional centres. Photo Courtesy of Auditor General's Report

In 2010, another Auditor General’s report similarly found deficiencies in how the Department monitored education bodies and student outcomes. It also found a gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students.

To close that gap, the department introduced the Aboriginal Student Achievement Education Plan.

In 2013, the government’s 10-year Education Renewal initiative further aimed to roll back the system’s shortcomings. Those challenges include struggling attendance rates in small communities, poor test scores and lagging graduation rates. 

According to the Auditor General’s report, these attempts at an overhaul have fallen flat.

The report – which primarily studied the Department from 2015 to 2019 – overlaps with Premier Caroline Cochrane’s tenure as education minister, an office she entered in 2018.

Last August, Cochrane, as education minister, was candid in the assembly and said the system was in dire need of reform.

“We are failing ... our children. Our graduation rates are low. Our early developmental index is coming in low. It is not okay,” she told MLAs at the time.