As a parent of elementary-aged children and a high school teacher in the making in Ontario, I’ve had my share of experience with the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tests for various grade levels. I chose to opt my son out of the process in Grade 3, and my daughter’s school is so small the tests weren’t distributed at all for that year. My son did the Grade 6 literacy and math tests this year, however, because I I wanted him to have some practice with the format. After all, Ontario students cannot graduate from high school without passing the Ontario Secondary Schools Literacy Test (OSSLT), also distributed by EQAO.
This year’s batch of Grade 10 students wrote the test earlier this spring, and the results are out: 82% of students passed the test. A further breakdown of these results shows that 93% of students in academic-level English courses passed. So what of the students who are in applied-level courses?
“[A]lthough only 22 per cent of all Grade 10 students who wrote the literacy test are enrolled in the applied English course, these students made up 58 per cent of those who did not succeed on the test.”
That seems pretty disproportionate, doesn’t it? Now, some folks may see the “academic” and “applied” labels and think to themselves, “Well, doesn’t it make sense that kids would be less literate in non-academic streams?” My answer to that is, no. It doesn’t make sense at all. This indicates a problem with how we test literacy, as well as how we stream our students.
Is there bias in the OSSLT? I suspect there likely is: cultural, linguistic, idiomatic. It’s not unusual for standardized tests to use figures of speech that are assumed to be universally understood, only to lead to failure of students whose cultural background has no understanding of these expressions.
The results of this round of tests were released on the heels of People for Education’s Special Education Report. This report indicates that half of schools across Ontario at all levels have “caps” on the number of students they are allowed to assess per year. For those students with identified difficulties who don’t get assessed one year, there’s no guarantee they will be assessesed in any subsequent year, as the wait list is not chronological, but by priority or crisis. A child who is recognized as at risk for a reading or writing disability in Grade 1 may make his/her way through to the Grade 10 literacy test without ever having been formally assessed, identified, and provided with accommodations and supports. Likewise, a child with ADHD who may be more inattentive than hyperactive, more isolated than disruptive – this child won’t have the assistance to develop self-regulation, planning, and working memory skills necessary to write well or comprehend written passages that don’t appeal to their interests.
When children do poorly in elementary school, they are streamed into applied-level courses. They are not necessarily given more support to develop stronger skills. Many children who do not get assessed but who may have other stuff going on will get streamed into these classes. Children who are newcomers who are not in school districts big enough to support ESL classes get streamed into these classes. Children who have difficulty with negative or disruptive behaviours get streamed into these classes.
You know who else gets streamed into these classes at a disproportionate rate? Poor kids. Kids whose parents are generationally poor. Kids whose parents were streamed the same way, and who have little trust in or respect for what school can do for their kids. Kids whose parents cannot afford to have them privately assessed when the schools refuse to do so, or who don’t even know that private assessment is an option. Kids whose families don’t value education because the education system has never reinforced their own value.
And what happens to students who do not pass this test? They have to take it again the next year. And if they don’t pass it then? They get to take a literacy course to satisfy the requirement. But what happens between the first failure and the taking of this course? How many students do we lose because they don’t believe it’s worth it to keep trying and keep failing?
We all have different abilities. We all have different interests. We all learn in different ways. Why that learning continues to happen in segregated classes, as though it’s impossible for teachers to differentiate their instruction, is a big question with many possible answers I won’t visit today.