Child Literacy Rates: Is Over-Reliance on Assistive Technology Handicapping Struggling Readers?

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Rising children’s reading scores in Ontario may well be an illusion.  Early literacy rates as measured on Ontario standardized test have, we now know, been inflated by the use of Assistive Technology (AT).  That was the biggest revelation contained in a ground-breaking September 2021 report, Lifting the Curtain on EQAO Scores, produced by the Ontario branch of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA/Ontario).

“There are so many students struggling to read whose experiences are being hidden right now,” says Alicia Smith, president of IDA Ontario. “Our goal in producing this report is to bring attention to the depth of the real issues. These are being swept under the carpet.”

Ontario’s provincial student assessment agency, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), has produced some problematic data. Between 2005 and 2019, the EQAO reported a steady increase in reading scores for students in grades 3 and 6.  On the Grade 3 test, the proportion of students meeting the provincial standard reportedly jumped from 59 to 74 per cent, a 15-point gain in the prime indicator of literacy.

What the EQAO did not publicly disclose was that increasing numbers of students were being provided with ‘accommodations’ such as AT when writing the test, which most likely inflated the numbers. Nearly one in five students (18 per cent) utilized AT to complete the EQAO assessment in 2019, up from 3 per cent back in 2005.

Assistive technology is now commonplace in Canadian schools, widely used to diagnose reading difficulties and to provide computer-assisted help with reading. During provincial tests, students with diagnosed reading difficulties are now routinely allowed to either listen to an audio version of the text and comprehension questions.  In many cases, they are accommodated by having adults, either a teacher or a volunteer, who is permitted to write down the student’s verbal response.

Gains in Ontario early reading scores shriveled up almost entirely when the use of assistive technology was factored into presenting the actual results. Whereas 56 per cent of students met the standard without the use of assistive technology in 2005, the figure was only marginally higher at 62 per cent in 2019.

Reported pass rates for the Grade 10 Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) have also been flagged as a cause for concern. While the EQAO reports that the percent of successful ‘first time eligible’ students has hovered between 80 and 82 per cent, the non-participation rate has more than doubled, rising from 8.4 per cent in 2005 to 19 per cent in 2019. Little is known about students who do not write the OSSLT, but Toronto District School Board data reveals that two-thirds (65 per cent) of students who do not participate in the OSSLT do not end up applying for post-secondary education.

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When provided with appropriate early instruction, an estimated 95 per cent of all students are cognitively capable of learning to read. In, Ontario and every other Canadian province, the IDA and many reading experts see a large gap between childrens’ human potential and current reading outcomes.

Experienced literacy experts and tutors have seen it all over the years.  “It’s a complete joke,” says Jo-Anne Gross, founder of Toronto-based Remediation Plus. “Most of the kids diagnosed and coded don’t have learning disabilities. They just don’t know how to read.”  Gross applauds IDA Ontario for exposing the hidden problem. “The authenticity of the reading scores is sadly lacking,” she claims, “and the public has a right to full disclosure.”

Ontario parent David Logan, a Kingston father of a Grade 5 son struggling with reading, told CBC News in October 2021 that assistive technology was little help to his son in mastering reading skills and his local public school had no plan to help him progress beyond needing the device. He’s fairly typical of many concerned parents who have come forward to testify at hearings of the ongoing Ontario Right to Read inquiry into human rights issues affecting students with reading disabilities.

While assistive technology can be very useful in helping educators to diagnose particular reading skills deficits, it is problematic when utilized to ‘read’ to students and produce scripts on standardized literacy tests. There are some unintended consequences.  It’s not just the technology, notes University of Toronto clinical psychologist Todd Cunningham, it’s more about the “accommodations” made in completing the test.  He explains what actually happens: “When there are teachers in the room, it’s natural for them to help out struggling kids.“

The recent Ontario revelations inflated EQAO literacy scores do give us some indication of what to expect when the much-anticipated Right to Read public inquiry report finally lands in the spring of 2022.

Why are so many younger students still struggling with reading?  Is there any substitute for effective instruction in early reading?  Should school systems implement end of grade 1 phonics checks as a matter of policy? What is an appropriate role for the use of Assistive Technology? Should AT be used by students completing provincial assessments? If so, does the public have a right to know the extent of its use and literacy rates unassisted by such technology?

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