Sunday, March 30, 2014

EQAO, Literacy and Ability

My 9-year-old says that EQAO stands for Evil Questions Attacking Ontario.  I think she's on to something.

We just administered the literacy test at our school this week.  I've always understood administering this standardized test as a means to ensure that nobody graduates high-school without demonstrating an ability to read and write at a specific level so that nobody ends up at a job unable to read the safety signs or the equipment manuals all by themselves.  And how embarrassing would it be to pass someone through the system who can't actually read?!

But many students with exceptionalities are allowed to have a scribe to read the test to them and record their answers verbatim in twice the time given other kids.  I'm baffled how a test measures literacy, the ability to read and write, if the taker is neither reading nor writing it.  This group of students are really just having one portion of their reading comprehension skills tested, not their level of literacy.  And the kids who clearly struggle with reading and writing, but who haven't been tested for an "exceptionality" are kinda getting ripped-off.  They have to do it all themselves within the time limit.  It's a conundrum how to offer a standardized test on any semblance of an even playing field.  I don't think it's possible.

Furthermore, one skill of the highly literate is being able to use a dictionary when encountering a foreign word.  But dictionaries aren't allowed during the lit test, and the vocabulary of this one was quite advanced.  Last year, many students were unable to write the essay portion because they got stuck on the word "compulsory" with respect to a question on mandatory courses in schools.  If they don't understand one word, looking it up isn't allowed; they have to guess or fail or both.  That doesn't measure their literacy but their I.Q. (or their luck).

The test costs a small fortune - over $30 million yearly.  That's only 2% of the cost of running full-day kindergarten, but still.  That's money that could be better spent on increasing special ed services in the primary grades to really attack literacy issues before they become permanent problems.

The great success of the test, that the scores have improved, is only because schools are teaching to the test - often taking time from novel studies, plays, poetry, formal essay writing, and grammar lessons to have students write myriad news articles and opinion essays. Part of the mandate of the EQAO is to "...contribute to the enhancement of the quality of education in Ontario," but education is compromised by the EQAO by creating a near obsessive concern with students focusing on the very few skills tested at the expense of a well-rounded curriculum.

But the worst problem, beyond the fact that they don't test literacy and that it's costly and time-consuming, is that it destroys the kids.  They get stressed out for a week beforehand, and they are terrified of failing because it means they're dumb.  The ones that fail have to write and fail again before they're given the option of taking a literacy course in order to get their OSSD.  It doesn't prevent students from graduating without being able to read and write, and it does clarify for them that their struggles with reading writing will define them.  

An essay in a 2007 CJEAP reported that,
"...low achieving students are 25% more likely to drop out of school in states that employ graduation tests versus non-tested states. Recent announcements by the Ontario government suggest that the province may be experiencing a similar trend. For example, the high school completion rate was steady in the mid 1990’s to 2001 at 78 per cent, but dropped sharply in 2001 to 71 per cent, and has remained relatively unchanged. The 2001 date is significant since the OSSLT was introduced as a graduation requirement during the 2000/2001 school year."
Why would anyone stay in an institution that makes it clear they're below par?  The reality is that, by high-school, some students might never be able to write a good new article or opinion essay.  They're employable and enjoyable, but they get screwed by this one disability in persuasive writing and journalism - skills they're unlikely to need in any job ever.

It's not being special or exceptional or differently-abled.  The inability to learn how to effectively read and write is a dis-ability.  Some kids who aren't literate are excellent with hands-on work, but many others have no saving talents.  They'll get jobs based on their ability to be polite and likeable and work well with others.  But they won't get a job without a high-school diploma.   There are many jobs that require minimal reading and no writing. Maybe being literate as measured by this test is too much to ask for this generation in which many graduate with a teacher scribing every test and assignment anyway.

I get on my students' case when I think they're being lazy, when they just don't feel like doing work.  I hound them daily to turn off the music during class and - new this year - during a film.  This is the first year I have people singing to their music while we're watching an entertaining but curriculum-driven movie in class.  They require endless stimulation to ward off boredom.  Parents are concerned, but not enough to take their devices away, and I'm not allowed to touch them.  And I can't send the whole class to the office.  This is a new set of problems being created that is so far beyond their inability to read and write.  They might get a job even without standard literacy skills, but they can't work with earbuds in during the day's instruction.  Erin Anderssen wrote a piece yesterday about digital overload and the quest for attention from corporations, suggesting, "the prize is our eyeballs." Absolutely.  Unfortunately, I don't have a whole team working on my marketing strategies.  

But, while I challenge them to work just above their perceived ability in order to stretch their skills, I accept that they have some intellectual limitations.  There's no pedagogical basis for giving them a test that's so far beyond the abilities of the students I teach, so I have a hard time believing that the testing is somehow for their benefit.

We need the political will to end this loss of time, money, and self-esteem.  And we need to address the very real challenges of this very different population.  Next time we define educational priorities, I believe extrapolating literacy rates from a test that doesn't prove literacy at all should be the first thing to go.   


Joe Bigliogo said...

Agreed. It's especially appalling to make a single test such high stakes. Students can fail the OSSLT for any number of reasons apart from reading literacy, stress being a major factor. Imagine wasting 12 years in school earning the required credits only to be denied a diploma because of a single test. Why bother putting in the effort when a single two hour test can nullify 12 years of study and effort. \
A question I have which no one seems able or willing to answer is… How many Ontario students have otherwise been denied a diploma on account of this test? Do the advocates of this test think it just and proper that a students future be jeopardized all because of this one test? Would the politicians who advocate for the OSSLT be willing to take the test themselves and be required to pass it as a condition for keeping their jobs? I think that would be a great idea. I also wonder how many would fail… I'll bet it's more than we think.

Marie Snyder said...

I don't think any are actually denied a diploma because if they fail the test, they just have to take an extra English course, which they all seem to pass with flying colours! Politicians might manage it because they're used to having to design their speeches to fit the time, and that's what the test is all about!