Ontario’s standardized high school literacy test is back. But to teachers and students the new online format is ‘clear as mud’
Can we talk about the OSSLT? That’s the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, for those unfamiliar with secondary school lingo — also known as that standardized test students must pass in order to graduate high school.
Like most school-related rites of passage, the OSSLT was on hiatus for the 2019/2020 and 2020/2021 school years, but now the test is back with a vengeance and in a shiny new format.
Ontario students are familiar with standardized tests, of course, which are administered and run by the EQAO — the Education Quality and Accountability Office, a Crown corporation. They write them in grades 3, 6 and 9. However, none of those tests have the same impact as the OSSLT, which has been a graduation requirement since the test was made mandatory in 2001.
Fail the test twice and students are forced to take an entire literacy course to earn their diploma.
This year, the EQAO decided to double down, springing not one, but two OSSLT tests on students this school year. All Grade 11 students and non-graduating Grade 12s will write a makeup test first, while current Grade 10 students will write in the spring.
Also, it’s online this year.
A disastrous 2016 attempt to take the OSSLT online resulted in the entire project being scrapped, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars in the process. However, the realities of pandemic life have made mass paper testing a thing of the past. As a result, the 2005 cohort are the canary in the coal mine, as it were, writing the first fully online literacy test sometime between November and December 2021. My older son Mustafa is scheduled to write Nov. 18 and he is not amused.
“We (the Grade 11s) feel that it is unfair that we have to write the OSSLT, because we have had a difficult high school experience. Giving only graduating Grade 12s this exemption feels unfair because, on top of adapting to this new system of schooling, we now have to take on this additional stress,” he said.
On the plus side, the test has been completely revamped, and includes fewer written questions and more “multiple select” options.
Having to write a Grade 10 literacy test while juggling the demands of Grade 11 courses such as Physics and Chemistry is challenging, so Mustafa and his friends were somewhat reassured when they caught a sneak peek at the new format of the revamped OSSLT. “I’m glad they shortened the test. All the students were expecting a glorified Google form, where we would have to write paragraphs upon paragraphs, so this seems much better and more user friendly.”
A literacy teacher I spoke with added that the revised test has built-in tools that will aid students during writing. “Students are so great at manoeuvring through technology. A lot of the tools embedded into the test are going to help kids, like highlighting, line reader and zoom. They can even have the test read out loud to them if they are wearing headphones. I think the way the OSSLT has been modernized is very good, user friendly and esthetically pleasing.”
However, the last minute nature of the late 2021 OSSLT makeup test took a lot of Grade 11 students by surprise. “We were given three weeks notice,” Mustafa shared. “My school has helped us prepare and so far we’ve had a total of two full school days to practise.” Which means test and assignments for other courses have been postponed to help Grade 11 students get up to speed on the requirements and expectations of the OSSLT.
The teachers I spoke with agreed that a literacy test to ensure that all graduating high school students had attained some level of literacy was a good idea, in theory.
The issue is how to go about assessing what literacy means in the 21st century. Is literacy just reading and writing skills? Or is it reading, writing, making connections, being digitally literate, making use of communication skills?
And how can one single test, administered over several hours in one afternoon, measure the sum of what it means to be literate?
Here’s another fun fact: while a pass on the OSSLT used to be a Level 3, or 70 per cent, the revamped OSSLT has opted to go for a clear as mud approach to describing a passing mark on their revamped version.
This from EQAO: “The Individual Student Report provides the outcome and a single literacy score for all students … A statistical procedure informed by Item Response Theory (IRT) is used to assign outcomes to students according to their responses to the questions on the OSSLT … The analysis determines the most likely location of a student on the achievement continuum defined by the content of the test. Each student’s outcome is determined by the pattern of responses to the multiple-select questions and by the scores achieved on the open-response questions.”
Did you get that? Neither did I.