As a teacher, no matter which discipline I was teaching, I strove to ensure that my students had the skills they needed to gather information, read for meaning, and express their thoughts effectively. For seven years, I served as the Literacy Facilitator at the secondary school at which I taught. In that position, I worked with the staff in every department of the school to support their efforts to strengthen student literacy skills. My position as Literacy Facilitator also meant that I was responsible, under the direction of the school administration, for the yearly foray into student completion of the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test. As well, I served on my board’s Literacy Committee.
I also scored the Literacy Test and served as a group leader in the scoring of the test. I was a member of the OSSTF delegation to the Education Quality and Accountability Office regarding the Literacy Test.
This Provincially mandated standardized test is conducted each year. All OntarioSecondary School students must meet provincially mandated literacy expectations as one of the requirements to achieve a secondary school diploma. If they have not been able to pass the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) after two opportunities to do so, then they can complete the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course (OSSLC) as one of their yearly subject options.
In Update (Vol 31 #6), Jon Cowan’s questions regarding the OSSLT were very timely. In addition to the questions which he raised, I would like to present the following for consideration.
Time and Money
Consider how much time and money is spent by schools in having grade 9 and/or 10 students write some form of in-school literacy test. The intention is to prepare these students for the OSSLT testing experience. While this is laudable, the costs of copying the materials and arranging to have the tests marked are considerable. Teachers must take time away from classroom teaching of course curricula in order to administer these tests, or teach ‘blitz sessions’. This comes at a cost to students (some of whom experience difficulty with regular course materials to be covered) who must then cover expected course content in a shorter period of time.
Many boards and schools spend money in preparing or purchasing literacy remediation materials (binders, booklets, after school courses). In these days of tight funding, the money would be better spent on textbooks, and hiring more staff so that students could have the opportunity for smaller classes, more sections, more course selections, and access to Guidance Counselors and Support Staff.
Consider how much money is spent by the province to fund the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), and to produce and mark the OSSLT. Dismantling the entire testing structure (which also oversees testing for grade 3, 6, 8, and 9 students) would provide potential monetary resources which could be provided to school boards and which could then have direct impact on the learning environment of students. Dismantling the entire testing structure might also put a dent in the provincial deficit.
Learning Style and Writing Style
Many students are Auditory or Kinesthetic learners. Teachers try to accommodate these learning styles in their classrooms. The OSSLT privileges Visual learners. Are learning theorists wrong? Does EQAO know something that they and classroom teachers do not about how students learn?
Teachers teach their students writing process – planning, researching, completing a rough draft, revising and editing, and final presentation of completed work. There are many ways that writers complete pre-writing planning (speaking as well as reading and thinking). How each student completes this task is an individual learning choice. The OSSLT privileges only students who read silently or think to themselves as they plan their writing. Are writing theorists wrong? Does EQAO know something that they and classroom teachers do not about how students write?
Teachers often provide accommodations for students who need more time or access to reference texts (etc.) as they work through assignments and tests. These students cannot have access to these same accommodations when completing the OSSLT UNLESS they (the students) have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) in place. While having an IEP is considered, by some, to denote a disadvantaged student, when it comes to provincial tests, it is clearly an advantage to have one.
The accommodations which are allowed for the administration of the OSSLT fly in the face of those listed on identified students’ IEP’s. The argument is made that the types of accommodations for the test must be constrained in order to ensure consistency of test administration in each school. However, an IEP is a legal document. Teachers are expected to provide the indicated accommodations in their course delivery. They do not do so at their peril. Does this mean that EQAO and the OSSLT operate on some form of ‘notwithstanding clause’?
Assessment and Testing
Effective testing requires several things, all of which are being undermined by the OSSLT. It requires that teachers test in a manner in which they have taught the material. Since the OSSLT demands certain kinds of reading and writing, teachers must modify their testing practices to fit the OSSLT format (to provide their students with sufficient practice experiences). Teachers, therefore, often artificially generate tests which follow the OSSLT standardized formats even if the changes which the teachers must make are not the most effective way to evaluate course materials.
Effective testing requires that teachers weigh tests appropriately to fit their use in each particular course. There is not one test or culminating activity (with the exception of final summative course evaluations) in any course which, if not completed or not passed, can cause a student to be denied the credit, let alone a high school diploma. This cannot be said for the OSSLT (or completion of the OSSLC to meet provincial literacy requirements).
Effective testing requires that teachers test in such a way that the content of the test is of similar difficulty to the skills or knowledge being examined. Many of the readings of the OSSLT scan at least one grade level higher than grade 9. EQAO argues that the OSSLT examines reading and writing skills which students should have acquired by the end of grade 9. However, how can these skills be effectively and reliably measured when the test contains readings which are too difficult when graded using standardized reading measures?
One might be sympathetic to the stated purpose of the OSSLT to ensure that all Ontario students meet or exceed a set of literacy competencies, but where, in this whole process, is there any credence given to teachers’ subject knowledge and professional judgment?
Three Major Consequences
* The OSSLT has given rise to a whole new resource industry. When there are still many courses which do not have approved textbooks, publishers (and boards) are producing resource manuals and practice test books all geared to helping students pass the OSSLT. These publishers have discovered the Ontario version of a ‘cram school’. They make money from the pressure to pass this test.
* Students must pass the test because they need a diploma. Once the board and school results are released to the public, then a form of ‘educational one-up-man-ship’ begins. Students’ test scores must improve or the boards will be perceived to not be ‘doing their job’. Students’ scores must improve as each school will be measured against the others in the system and the province. It is a very telling fact that teachers and schools are measured, not by what their students accomplish and the informed learners which they become, but by the fact that the teachers and schools are ‘better than’ the school down the road! The cry seems to have become,“ We’re # 1!” or “We’re better than you are!”
* Finally, consider the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Course (OSSLC). Let’s compound the problems for the students who haven’t succeeded in proving that they are ‘literate’ by passing the OSSLT (which has been established on a very limited definition of what it means to be literate). The students who will have to take this course will not be able to enroll in other classes. This puts in jeopardy a school’s ability to offer courses, especially at the senior level since the Literacy Course is a senior level course. In turn, this affects staffing, which affects course offerings, which affects staffing – a never-ending vicious cycle. This way, everyone – students, teachers, and parents – will feel the after-effects of the OSSLT.
Teachers teach their students how to be effective members of a learning community – working together, helping each other as they acquire subject knowledge, coming to the teacher for clarification and explanation. Teachers explain, help, answer student questions, and seek out alternative ways of explaining material and teaching concepts. Then, with the preparation and administration of the OSSLT, teachers are required to undo it. Teachers work with their students one way – providing clarification, answers to questions, alternative ways to explain assignments — but are then told that they can’t do that anymore. So the teacher’s standard answer becomes, “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you or answer your question.” Is it any wonder that students, parents, and teachers – the whole educational community – are confused and distressed?
Teachers are expected to behave in a manner contrary to their own professional judgment, and they come to feel that they are not teaching as they believe ‘teaching’ to mean. What a dreadful moral dilemma in which to place anyone!