Literacy · Topics for Parents and Students

Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test: yes, it’s important; no, it’s not perfect

October 20th is near: trees are coloured, the air is crisp, maple syrup is abundant in recipes, and grade 10 students all across this great province are chomping at the bit to write the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test.


Actually, most students either fear the test or see it as a nuisance, and teachers (ahem) can’t have an opinion – at least with students or their parents. Like politicians, we often need to toe the party line.

“You need to prepare to write the OSSLT by completing this practice book, writing a practice test, and finally, writing the actual test on October 20th”, says Teacher A.

“Why? I read and write in classes all day long; why do I have to write a 3 hour test to prove I’m literate?”, replies Student A.

“Why? I know I’m going to fail so what’s the point? Can I just take the course?”, chips in Student B.

Good points.

Why do we want our grade 10 students writing a standardized literacy test? As an English studies teacher and Literacy Program Leader over the past decade, I’ve actually come to see quite a bit of value in the testing process, as well as its results.

Ok, ok I can hear some of your groans from here – I said value – I didn’t say it was the holy grail of student literacy evaluation.

First of all, as an admitted ‘A’ type, I like the structure of the testing process: prep, pre-test, analyze, prep again, write, results. Moreover, believe it or not I think it’s important for students to do something challenging and serious. Something that they feel ‘matters’. Students take the test and its’ results seriously, so (most) treat it accordingly. They prepare, practice and focus on the test. For our best and brightest the test is a breeze, and for our weakest students it’s a significant challenge, but I think the group that benefits most are actually the ‘average kids’ – you know, those kids in the middle we all forget about most of the time. They know they aren’t top students, and at times question their own abilities and confidence in all aspects of education. But when they are successful on the OSSLT, they benefit the most – their confidence increases, and they feel pride in the fact that they worked hard to prepare for the test and were successful. They are beaming from ear to ear when they receive their successful test results.

Also, I believe that the OSSLT like other standardized tests it is a great tool for teachers to use as a gauge for where their students are at, and where they should be. The results available for school administration on the EQAO website are quite detailed. When they are analyzed properly, teachers and school administration can get a pretty nice picture of where their programming may need a little boost. For example, a school analysis report can inform a school that although overall their student reading achievement is quite good, and their writing content is decent, their students need to work on writing conventions (capitalization, spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc.). Thus, EQAO results can be used as a great teaching tool in terms of course planning and whole school literacy focus.

Furthermore, student specific results can sometimes be a great way to identify students who  need some more support with literacy education. Although the OSSLT is administered in grade 10, it actually tests English language reading and writing skills to the end of grade 9. Therefore, generally students who are unsuccessful on the test are working at least one grade level behind their peers in terms of literacy skills. An unsuccessful achievement on the test is a ‘red flag’ for students, teachers and parents to recognize that their students/children need some extra support in terms of literacy education.

In most cases, this is a bit more of a ‘red flag’ for students and parents, rather than teachers. Often teachers had tried to communicate this information in the past, but it was not taken seriously or given much importance. Suddenly, though, when the student is unsuccessful on the OSSLT it is recognized as a ‘problem’ that needs to be addressed. Extra help for students who are unsuccessful on the OSSLT may come in the form of tutoring, extra time spent working on literacy skills, or a decision to take the literacy course and  dedicate an extra semester to working on the literacy skill set. What matters most is that the students are given the time and tools to improve their literacy skills, and sometimes it takes an unsuccessful achievement on the OSSLT to make them realize that this is an educational priority that needs to be addressed.

Finally, another plus that I see in terms of the OSSLT and standardized testing is that it is the great ‘equalizer’ for students and schools across the province. As an educator, it is important to know how your students compare to others in our region, as well as the province as a whole. Some will disagree with this attitude  – but let’s face it what’s a ‘Level 4’ worth if compared to other students in the province, a student’s literacy skills really represent a ‘Level 2’. Are we really doing that student any justice? This train of thought can also lend itself to schools as a whole. How can we judge that our school’s literacy programming is up to par without comparing its achievement against other schools? It’s important to know where you stand and whether or not your programming is producing students whose literacy skills compare to that of their peers. How will they be able to survive and/or compete at the next levels of education if they are not? The OSSLT provides students and schools with a good barometer by which they can measure their literacy skills and programming.

So that’s the good side of the coin – yes, in my opinion (believe it or not)  the OSSLT is a good thing for students, teachers and schools, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. There are certainly some aspects of the testing process, test and reporting that need to be improved.

The most obvious issue and the one students, teachers and parents complain about the most is the duration of the test. It’s long – arduous, to be exact. Students must complete two 75 minute booklets in one school day. For special education students with double time as an accommodation, that ends up being two 150 minute blocks, which really is an entire school day (and I’ve witnessed many a special education student use that amount of time). Is it really necessary that the testing process be that long?  In my humble opinion absolutely not. I can assess my students on the first day of my English class by giving them a  ten minute vocabulary/cold reading multiple choice quiz and asking them to write a short, informal essay. I have no idea why EQAO the ‘gold standard’ for education evaluation cannot. Oh wait…maybe it’s because many of the people writing and deciding on administrative aspects of the test aren’t actually teachers who work in regular classrooms? Hmmm…..

Moving on, another issue is the lack of choice regarding the writing selections on the test. Good teaching practice and the almighty Ministry of Education Growing Success document (201o), states that assessment and evaluation should take into consideration the fact that students have different “interests, learning styles, preferences, needs and experiences”. The OSSLT most certainly does not follow this recommendation. For example, students are asked to write a news report as one of the writing tasks based on a picture and headline. In the past, a picture has been that of an athletic team with a headline that announced a title win. How is a student who has no athletic skills or experiences on a team supposed to write a news report about that image and headline? Clearly, they would struggle more that a student with that particular interest and experience. Thus, the student who has no athletic experience is at a disadvantage when writing that particular part of the test. In the classroom, we almost always offer choice in terms of writing assignments – why can’t this practice be replicated on the OSSLT – even if only for the two long writing tasks (news report and opinion piece). Would it really be that tough to offer at least one other option for each of these tasks?

A new hurdle for many students in terms of the OSSLT will come to light on October 20th: the online only version of the test. Although at the March 2017 delivery of the test, students will have a choice between a pen and paper version or an online version, on October 20th they must write the online version if they’d like to challenge the test. This adds a whole other level of ‘non-literacy’ testing to the OSSLT. What about students who struggle with technology or typing? Is is their literacy skills that will be evaluated or will their lack of technological skills determine whether or not they will be successful on the test? Clearly, this is yet to be seen, but many literacy leaders see the writing on the wall: those lacking in technological skills will be at a disadvantage.

Is the OSSLT perfect? Absolutely not. But is it valuable in terms of determining the success of a teaching program or gauging student literacy achievement – yes. What is most frustrating about the testing is that literacy leaders and teachers have been giving feedback for YEARS that the testing is too long and that more diversity needs to be worked into questions, but clearly this feedback has been ignored by EQAO. It is really unfortunate, as if literacy leaders and teachers feel that they are engaged with the OSSLT, it can only help learner outcomes as well as the accuracy of testing results.

So when your child comes home and tells you they need to write the OSSLT this year, take it seriously and help them prepare. Resources are available for parents and students at Moreover, when their test results are returned take a look at them and follow the suggestions on the handout. Without adequate literacy skills , we know that students will struggle both at the secondary and post-secondary level. What’s great, though, is that literacy skills are like anything else in life. With practice and dedication, they will improve.


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