Rising children’s reading scores in Ontario may well be illusory. Early literacy rates as measured on Ontario standardized tests have, we now know, been inflated by the use of assistive technology (AT). That was the biggest revelation contained in a groundbreaking 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-percentage 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 three per cent back in 2005.

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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 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, write down the student’s verbal response.

Over-reliance on assistive technology can become a problem when it’s used as a replacement for, rather than a complement to, proper reading instruction. That’s how Mount Saint Vincent University learning disabilities expert Jamie Metsala put it in responding to the IDA Ontario report.

Other experts say overuse is one factor preventing some students from ever learning to read properly.

Gains in Ontario early reading scores shriveled up almost entirely when the use of assistive technology was factored into presenting the actual results. While 56 per cent of students met the standard without the use of assistive technology in 2005, that 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 proportion 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 reveal that almost two-thirds (65 per cent) of students who do not participate in the OSSLT do not end up applying for post-secondary education.

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 children’s human potential and current reading outcomes.

A number of critical factors come into play, particularly the ineffectiveness of conventional “balanced literacy” programs attempting to integrate various modalities of literacy instruction. Such programs give short-shrift to phonics and are not aligned with the best practice in the science of reading. In the case of Ontario, reducing class sizes, establishing full-day kindergarten and providing enhanced special education have all been justified, in part, as a means to improve early literacy rates.

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.”

Assistive technology originated in the 1970s, initially as a valuable tool to aid the visually impaired. It spread into Ontario and British Columbia in the late 1990s and early 2000s as a means of advancing inclusive education for all students. Use of AT further expanded in 2005 and 2006, when the Ontario government began investing heavily in learning technology projects. “Assistive technology became a lifeline for teachers and a miracle cure for integrating everyone into regular classrooms,” says University of Toronto clinical psychologist Todd Cunningham.

Cunningham is critical of the way Ontario has implemented assistive technology. “Like a wheelchair, AT provides compensatory assistance,” he says, but it also can foster longer-term dependence when students never learn to read on their own. There are some 400 different products in the field, addressing a wide range of disabilities. Teachers utilize AT to help them cope with overcrowded classrooms and respond to demands for accommodations. “Misuse of technology,” he reports,” is quite common even in today’s classrooms.”

A 2017 University of Iowa evidence-based review and meta-analysis of assistive technology interventions confirmed that the research for its effectiveness remains spotty based upon small samples – small in sample size and limited in its treatment of long-term outcomes.

Ontario parent David Logan, a Kingston father of a Grade 5 son struggling with reading, told CBC News in October that assistive technology didn’t help his child master reading skills yet his local public school had no plan to help him progress beyond needing the device. Logan is 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.

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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 Cunningham, who is one of Canada’s leading reading experts. He says it’s more about the “accommodations” made in completing the test. “When there are teachers in the room, it’s natural for them to help out struggling kids.”

Early identification of one of the most common disabilities, dyslexia, is critically important to reading success. It is more effective than delaying early assessment and then prescribing AT. Early intervention requires less time, tends to be less expensive, and helps to avert the cascading effects on reading comprehension, academic difficulties, self-esteem and behavioural or mental health challenges. In the case of the U.K., for example, implementing a national reception baseline assessment administered to those entering kindergarten has helped to identify risk factors for early reading difficulties.

Students diagnosed in Grade 1 or Grade 2 with learning disabilities fare much better than those identified as such in Grade 3 or later, which is common in Ontario and other provinces. Implementing best practices would entail introducing a standard assessment of the decoding ability to sound out words in Grade 1, well in advance of Grade 3 provincial reading tests. More specifically, we should join England and Australia in adopting a “phonics screening check” in Grade 1 and then offering a phonics-based intervention in Grade 2 to all students who are weak in decoding and struggling to read. Embracing the science of reading, it turns out, is the best route to reading comprehension and fluency.

Assistive technology is no magical cure, but rather a crutch that can foster long-term dependency when in-class support disappears. Without effective early identification and evidence-based reading instruction, it has evolved into what Cunningham describes as “more of a Band Aid to patch-up a broken system.” The recent Ontario revelations of 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. It may also present a more effective strategy to ensure equity in terms of reading success for younger children.

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Paul W. Bennett
Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D., is director of Schoolhouse Institute, Halifax, NS, and adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary’s University. His latest book is The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools (2020). Find him on Twitter: @Educhatter

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