the revelation that 39 per cent of grade 10 students (45 per cent in Toronto) failed either the reading or writing component of a literacy test came as quite a "shock' to the Minister of Education. But we can only assume she's feigning her surprise. In the next few weeks, when the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO, which did the original test) releases the results for individual schools, you're likely to see what education experts have known for years: the overwhelming factor in explaining varying test scores is social class.
It's true you won't see the EQAO link the results to social class. As Brenda Protheroe, the chief assessment officer, says, "We have the data broken down by individual schools, but it hasn't been analyzed yet. Even if it had, our office doesn't have any contextual information to tie the data from specific schools to class.'
Nonetheless, an informal survey of high schools via info provided by OSSTF school reps reveals that scary pattern once again. While reps made me promise not to reveal the schools (they didn't want to take the heat for pre-empting the official release of results), the results are everything you might expect.
In one small east-end school where students are mostly poor, only 8 per cent passed. The results slowly climb as one ascends the class ladder. In one working-class and immigrant commercial high school with a predominance of girls, only 22 per cent passed.
In a neighbouring working-class collegiate in the east end, only 18 per cent passed. At four schools where gentrified inner-city yuppies rub shoulders with upwardly mobile immigrants, the results were all in the 70-per-cent range. Those in the affluent North Toronto district did that much better, with scores in the high 80-per-cent range. These were surpassed by four extremely affluent schools that scored in the 90-per-cent range.
It would be easy for high school teachers, who've only had the students with low scores for a year, to try to shift the blame to elementary teachers, who had them for nine. But they won't engage in buck-passing; teachers in both panels understand that teaching poor kids is very difficult.
Then there's the fact that T.O. has a number of ESL students who need, according to all the experts, at least seven years before they can "function' in English, and they will have difficulties for years longer. Thousands of refugee students who live throughout Toronto are in high schools due to their age but have often had only three or four years of uninterrupted schooling in El Salvador, Somalia or some other land.
It's a state of affairs that predates the Common Sense Revolution. It may not be their fault, but there's a lot the Tories could do about it. If they want to do more than just demoralize teachers or institute more rote learning, they could do what every reputable study recommends: fund early-childhood education, make junior kindergarten mandatory and decrease class sizes up to grade five.
They could put more money into ESL programs, raise the minimum wage and welfare rates and build housing to take the chaos out of poor people's lives that contributes so strongly to illiteracy rates. Illiteracy will not be cured by school uniforms or teachers-union-busting or any of the other conservative reforms that have flopped so dismally in the U.S..
With research by Stephen Wicary. Doug Little is a high school teacher.
The furor surrounding Ontario high-school students' apparent lack of literacy is a manufactured crisis, argues Robert Wright, a Trent University history professor who has completed a study of youth and their reading habits.The author of Hip And Trivial: Youth Culture, Book Publishing And The Greying Of Canadian Nationalism, Wright argues that young people have unprecedented literacy competence. And after a close reading of the province's recently released literacy scores for grade 10, which show that 39 per cent of Ontario grade 10 students failed either the reading or writing component of tests administered last October, he has whittled the number of students struggling to read and write down to fewer than one in five.
Only 13 per cent of students failed both, he points out. More importantly, 10 per cent of stu-dents didn't write the test at all, although their numbers were included in the totals. Their absenteeism brings the failure rate down to 29 per cent.
Further, he points out, the test had very stringent rules. "Thirty-five per cent of those students failed because they didn't follow instructions," says Wright. "If students were asked to write three paragraphs but instead wrote two or four, they failed, regardless of the quality of their prose."
Doing the math leaves a final failure rate of slightly less than 19 per cent. Of course, that number still includes tests written by ESL and special education students, groups Wright says will lag behind.
"Even if the results are accurate, they are entirely in keeping with other established youth literacy data," says Wright. "If they aren't accurate -- and I believe the element of student sabotage alone (many students were told the test didn't count) calls them into question -- then I predict that next year's test-takers will astound us all."
Wright says he was surprised to see comments from an assessment officer with the Education Quality and Accountability Office suggesting students had the most difficulty following non-literary passages.
"What worries me is that the EQAO believes that students need more help in working with "summaries and opinions and reports.' As a humanities professor, not only would I rather see young people reading novels instead of bank statements, but I'd also emphasize that literary reading is what makes a person become a life-long reader.
"If the goal of educating youth in literacy practices is to inspire them to read and heighten their comfort with print culture, then our teachers are doing their job.
by STEPHEN WICARY