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Canada One in four Ontario postsecondary students lacks basic literacy, numeracy skills, studies say

York University in Toronto, Ont. on May 30, 2018.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

About a quarter of graduating students in Ontario’s postsecondary programs lack adequate literacy and numeracy skills, according to new research from the government agency that monitors the system.

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) completed two large studies of more than 7,500 students at 20 Ontario postsecondary institutions and found that a large number of students achieved scores below the level it considered adequate to succeed in today’s job market. Less than a third of graduating students scored at a superior level.

Harvey Weingarten, president and chief executive of HEQCO, said the research is among the first of its kind to try to measure employment-related skills outcomes in the higher-education system. He said one of the main reasons students pursue postsecondary education is to get a good job. But while universities and colleges say they prepare students for the world of work, employers are frustrated, he said. Many employers say the students they encounter don’t have the communication, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills they’re seeking.

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“It troubles us that, in our opinion, too many students are graduating with skills in those two areas that are not as highly developed as we would like,” Dr. Weingarten said. “We need to do better than we’re doing now.”

This work aims to measure student skills and provide a basis for understanding what is valued in the labour market, and how those attributes could be taught.

The first study examined literacy, numeracy and problem-solving ability, while the second looked at critical-thinking skills. Both studies involved students in their first year of postsecondary learning, and those in their last year. Students volunteered or were recruited for the studies, and therefore the sample was not random or representative; nor were the same students tested at the beginning and end of their schooling. However, Dr. Weingarten said this research provides the basis for future experiments that could begin to determine what works best in higher education.

On literacy and numeracy, the study found that the largest number of students – about 45 per cent – received a score of three out of a possible five, which HEQCO called “the minimum required for graduates to perform well in today’s work world.” About 25 per cent scored below that level, and a little less than 30 per cent scored at a level of four out of five, considered superior.

The test was not measuring whether students can read or do arithmetic, but whether they can take written or numerical information and use it to solve problems.

“Is it okay that one in four students from Ontario’s postsecondary system has below adequate literacy and numeracy? That number should be zero,” Dr. Weingarten said.

“If the skills they’re graduating with aren’t adequate, how do we teach those skills in an efficient and effective way? The truthful answer is we don’t know, but we know how to find out.”

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The second study looked at critical thinking. The results showed similar levels of analytical ability on average, with little difference in the scores of those in the first year of study and those in the last year.

Ross Finnie, one of the co-authors of the second study and a University of Ottawa professor, said the data show the need for long-term examination of the skills students need to acquire, which are critical to national prosperity and progress.

“It’s not about turning out machines for the job market, but most students in postsecondary education want good employment prospects when they graduate. If we can help, that would potentially be an important contribution,” Prof. Finnie said.

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