By Judith Hunter, former Education Officer with the Assessment and Reporting team with EQAO and classroom teacher and elementary and secondary English/Literacy consultant with the Toronto District School Board.
Video interview with Judith Hunter
Most people would agree that students today need to develop a specific set of skills to be successful in the increasingly complex and information-rich world of the 21st century. What are these skills and how can we, as educators, support student success? This is an area that EQAO investigated as part of its research program. Using the descriptions of 21st century skills defined by the Conference Board of Canada and Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities as a starting point, EQAO assessed which of the skills were currently being measured on provincial tests administered in secondary schools— the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) and the Grade 9 Assessment of Mathematics.
What are the 21st-Century Skills? The skills described by the Conference Board of Canada and Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities are also referred to as “essential skills” or “employability skills” and can be categorized as
EQAO examined the Ontario Curriculum literacy and numeracy expectations measured by the provincial test questions and determined that the tests measure abilities that are part of three of the key 21st-century-skill categories:
What follows is a brief summary of the findings of EQAO’s analysis. The recently published EQAO research bulletin “Preparing Students for the World Beyond the Classroom: Linking EQAO Assessments to 21st-Century Skills” provides further details on the specific EQAO data indicators that can be used to pinpoint student achievement in each of these three areas. The bulletin also provides a current snapshot of province-wide student achievement across the dimensions of communication, numeracy, and critical thinking and problem-solving.
According to the study, more than 80% of first-time eligible (FTE) students have been successful on the OSSLT since 2006 and are progressing toward core 21st-century communication skills, including writing clearly, correctly and effectively and understanding information presented in a variety of forms. Approximately one-third of students have achieved the top scores for the development of a topic on the OSSLT’s long-writing tasks. In the OSSLT’s short-writing tasks, three-quarters of students achieved the top score for topic development. Of interest, the study further reveals that FTE students who were successful on the OSSLT performed equally well on the three types of reading skills assessed (i.e., reading, understanding and responding), whereas unsuccessful students had difficulty across all three skills.
Approximately three-quarters of students taking the academic mathematics course and one-third of students taking the applied mathematics course have performed at or above the provincial standard (Level 3) since 2006 and are progressing toward attaining important 21st-century numeracy skills, including performing mathematical operations accurately, deciding what to measure or calculate and explaining or clarifying mathematical thinking. On the student questionnaires that form part of EQAO’s assessments, three-quarters of students taking academic mathematics courses and two-thirds of students taking applied mathematics courses indicated that they understood most of what they have been taught. However, fewer than half of all students stated that they saw the mathematics they were learning as useful in everyday life, suggesting that the majority of students did not see real-life connections to the mathematics they were learning. This is an area of concern, particularly for students enrolled in the applied course.
EQAO’s provincial tests require students to demonstrate their critical thinking and problem solving skills. Students who performed at or above the provincial standard on the Grade 9 Assessment of Mathematics and those who were successful on the OSSLT showed a progression toward acquiring important skills such as applying a variety of thinking skills, demonstrating a systematic approach to solving problems, and analyzing information to make judgments and draw conclusions. However, digging deeper into the data, the study revealed that students in the academic mathematics course have consistently been performing better on questions assessing their knowledge and understanding and their application of mathematical concepts than on the questions assessing their problem-solving abilities. Similarly, students in the applied mathematics course have performed least well on problemsolving questions and have had difficulty solving multi-step problems.
On the OSSLT, at least three-quarters of students have performed well on questions assessing the reading skills of making inferences and constructing interpretations; however, unsuccessful students have demonstrated particular difficulty analyzing the ideas and information in texts to make judgments, draw conclusions and support their answers.
In general, these findings suggest Ontario students are well on their way to developing their skills in communication, numeracy, and critical thinking and problem solving—three categories of the 21st-century skills needed for success. At the same time, the bulletin suggests three key areas that can be woven through all instructional programs to support student learning, including: