Photo: Cindy Cui

Photo: Cindy Cui

In the past few years, the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) has become a contentious topic at Marc Garneau. This is primarily due to the mandatory news reports and opinion paragraphs that students have to write in all of their courses. Ever since they were introduced two years ago, the assignments have been unpopular amongst staff and students alike. Many argue that the assignments are not helping their English skills, and are rather promoting a useless, mechanical method of writing. Students often complete the assignments sarcastically (guilty as charged), or simply do not complete them at all.

The point of these assignments is to improve Marc Garneau’s OSSLT scores, which were on the decline in previous years. The assignments aim to prepare students by allowing them to practice the type of writing required on the test itself. If this program helps more students pass the OSSLT, it is deemed successful. So, are the numbers adding up? Are Marc Garneau students performing better on the test?

EQAO offers year by year statistics for each school on its website so that people can see how schools are performing. The first statistic compares the student results from Grade 6 EQAO to the Grade 10 OSSLT; whether they maintained the provincial standard, rose to it, dropped from it, or never met it at all. For reading, the average percentage of MGCI students who maintained the standard or rose above the standard before the assignments were introduced was 74.5%. Once they were implemented, the percentage of students who achieved the standard rose to 82%. Writing follows a similar story. Before the assignments, 74.5% met the standard. After the assignments, this number jumped to 82%. Evidently, more students were able to either keep their success, or improve their abilities to achieve success.

Looking at the specific statistics per year for first time fully participating students, students that attempted and were not deferred or absent, we see a dramatic increase in the percentage that passed. The passing percentage of students rose from an average of 74.3% before the assignments, to 80% afterwards. In 2014, 82% of students passed, the highest percentage in nine years. Only 78% of students passed in 2015; however this may have been due to the fact that many more students were not in the academic stream in 2015. Only 62% of students were in the academic English stream in 2015, compared to 70.5% of students in the previous four years. Evidently, a majority of first-time, fully participating students are benefiting from this program.

Another important group to look into is the students who have previously attempted the OSSLT and are writing it again. In the years prior to the introduction of the assignments, the percentage of students who were successful was 39%. In the last two years, that percentage increased to 49%, a significant amount. Even looking at students who passed the OSSLC, a supplementary course designed to aid students in Grade 12 who have not passed the OSSLT, the pass rate goes from an average of 23%, to 28%.

Even with a rough statistical analysis, it is clear that this literacy program is helping students. It is not only aiding those students that are struggling, but it is also benefitting those who are writing it for the first time.

There may be skeptics attributing the boost in student performance to a plausible decline in difficulty of the OSSLT over the last two years. Rest assured, the OSSLT has not gotten any easier. From 2007 to 2010, the province-wide pass rate was 84 to 85%, while in the past four years it had only been 82%. If anything, the test has been getting harder.

Nevertheless, there are several issues regarding how literacy is set up at our school . First and foremost, many question why those who have already passed the test are required to complete the monthly assignments. After all, the assignments are designed specifically to aid students who will be writing the OSSLT. Moreover, writing these assignments is simply about following a checklist, sentence by sentence, but doing so does not improve the ability to write sophisticated opinion essays or articles.

Two potential alternatives are to make the assignments mandatory only to those who have yet to pass the OSSLT, or to alter the ones for students who have already passed. The assignments should be made more unique and engaging. Having students practice creative writing in more interesting formats, such as journal entries or persuasive paragraphs on a topic of their choice, may engage students more.

Clearly, literacy assignments are fulfilling their intended task by improving Marc Garneau CI’s scores. But if they come at the cost of mechanical writing and not giving students who already passed the chance to enhance their skills, then they are failing their namesake purpose. The time for an overhaul is now. Literacy assignments must become literate at reading the needs of all students.