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Standardized tests reveal stream of students fall behind

Grade 10 students at Sir Oliver Mowat Collegiate Institute in Scarborough pose for some photographs in their school library.

Tory Zimmerman/The Globe and Mail

Ontario students in the applied stream are "disproportionately" more likely to be unsuccessful on literacy tests than their academic Grade 10 counterparts, according to provincial results.

Students are channelled into academic and applied programs starting in high school. Academic students focus more on abstract thinking and theory and move at a quicker pace in their classes than applied courses, which tend to be more geared toward practical hands-on applications. But all students must pass the Grade 10 literacy test, which measures reading, writing and comprehension, to graduate from high school.

The results of the standardized tests, released Wednesday and tracked by the Education Quality and Accountability Office, show a pattern of applied students struggling for a number of years and reveal a "notable" split between academic and applied students.

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"Applied students make up a smaller percentage of students taking the test and yet they are disproportionately represented as those students who are not successful," said EQAO's chief assessment officer Marianne Mazzorato, adding that the findings suggest the effectiveness of the applied English course should be reviewed.

The large majority of students who wrote the test are enrolled in the academic English course in 2012, and more than nine out of 10 of them were successful. On the other hand, although only 22 per cent of all Grade 10 students who wrote the literacy test are enrolled in the applied English course, these students made up 58 per cent of those who did not succeed on the test.

Overall, 82 per cent of students were successful on the 2012 test – a figure that dropped slightly from last year's result of 83 per cent. A high of 85 per cent was reached in 2008-2009.

"Of course we want to see that trajectory going up, but a fluctuation of one or two percentage points isn't alarming," Ms. Mazzorato said. "If we can make inroads in that area [applied courses], we will see that trajectory consistently go up."

Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said the curriculum of the applied English course might not necessarily be the problem.

"It might be the curriculum which needs to be reviewed, but a lot of student success has to do with support they get," Mr. Caron said. "For some of these students, English might not be their native language, or they could be having a bad day or they just don't do well on standardized testing."

Annie Kidder, executive director for the Ontario parents' organization People for Education, said rather than reviewing the applied English course material, schools should look at which students are taking those courses.

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"There is a real range of students taking applied courses from special needs to those who want to get to college," she said. "I think the question here is which kids are choosing those programs and why. We've left it for a number of years."

Drilling further down into the results revealed that of those Grade 10 students who were unsuccessful on the literacy test this year, 78 per cent had also not met the provincial reading standard in 2008 for their Grade 6 EQAO tests.

"That's not to say all students who do poorly on their Grade 6 tests will be unsuccessful in Grade 10 as well," Ms. Mazzorato said. "But it does indicate that parents and teachers should both keep a watchful eye and tailor learning opportunities."

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