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reading.jpg (18409 bytes) Hundreds of teachers helped develop the Grade 10 reading and writing test that will be introduced across the province in October. Find out how the test was developed and how it will work

Checking Out Reading and Writing

"I think the only thing that the traditional type of tests shows us is whether the student has read the material," says Amy Leclaire. "Of course, sometimes the students can read it and not comprehend it. Then they have a problem with comprehension. But if a student hasn't read it, obviously they are going to do poorly on the test. And I don't think that type of evaluation is really informing teachers of students' learning progress."

Leclaire thinks the new Grade 10 reading and writing test is different. "If kids do poorly on the test, I think it will be because of a genuine problem, like a reading comprehension problem or a learning problem or a writing problem," she says. Leclaire, who teaches English at Arnprior District High School, was one of the hundreds of Ontario teachers who helped develop the test.

For two years, the Education Quality Accountability Office (EQAO) has been developing the content and process for a test of the reading and writing skills of every Grade 10 student in the province. Ontario's 160,000 Grade 10 students will be taking the test for the first time in October.

Sandra McTavish, an English teacher at Southwood Secondary School in Cambridge, also worked on the test. She thinks "teachers, students and parents should feel confident that the test has been really well put together. A lot of thought and time and input from the people who are teaching the kids has gone into the test."

Pauline Laing describes the scale of the project as mind-boggling. The co-moderator of the Grade 10 Test of Reading and Writing Skills says, "We all talk about assessment and how important it is to do it right. When you look at the complexities that go into making it genuinely fair, you begin to understand how difficult it really is and how much detailed work and research has to go into it. None of it is simple."

One big challenge was finding appropriate reading materials. Laing says, "The materials have to be of interest to students, appropriate for diversity, at an accessible reading level for the group, and varied in topic. This is not a test of the English curriculum, but a test of generic skills. The passages have to be diverse. We were looking not only at the traditional paragraph, but also at graphs, diagrams and schedules."

Many of the passages came from popular publications like magazines. The passages have to stand alone, avoiding anything that would require a student to know specific information, such as something they learned in history or geography. The EQAO had to get permission to use any copyrighted material. Developers also had to allow for complete comparability between the English and French tests and between tests from one year to the next.

The reading part of the test has been designed to assess the students' ability to understand surface meaning and the explicit details described in a passage and also to make inferences, that is, comprehend the main message in the text. The students will also have to be able to apply what they read and to use structure and context as clues to the meaning of any words in the text that they don't at first understand.

The section on writing will find out if students can state a main idea and support it with details and structure, organize their thoughts, use appropriate sentence structure, vocabulary, spelling, grammar and punctuation, as well as identify their audience and gear their writing to it.

Laing emphasizes, "It's not a 'got you' kind of test. We want to give students an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do."

Teachers can help students prepare for the test by paying attention to the details of reading and writing in every subject, according to Laing. "For example, in science, instead of just saying 'Could you read this and we'll talk about it' say 'Look at the first paragraph. Do you see a sentence that seems to state the topic of the paragraph? Do you see three words that would indicate to you the author has three main points to make?' It's being very explicit about the skills of reading, no matter what the subject is," says Laing.

"The same goes for writing," she continues. "Don't let the organization go, don't let the ability to create a logical train of thought go and don't say because this is mathematics the students don't write. There are lots of ways to incorporate writing in every subject."

The EQAO team, with input from the many groups involved in education, set out to identify the skills they were testing for and to search for materials to use. They also looked into what kinds of questions would be best and what kinds of prompts work for students to elicit the best response.

Teachers from across the province were involved in developing the materials. In the pilot phase, the EQAO sent out sample questions to see which ones the students understood. In this round 2,700 students - English and French - participated. The EQAO did an extensive analysis, including asking experts from across the country to look at how the students performed on every item.

Amy Leclaire was involved in marking the sample tests. She wanted to be able to add her input to see that her students would be tested fairly and accurately. "I was pleased with the things that EQAO has been doing. I feel it is going to be a fair test," Leclaire says.

During the three rounds of pilot tests, changes were made. By the last of the three rounds, the changes were minor - "tweaking" as Laing says.

These rounds also served as a test of logistics, how the test gets distributed, collected and marked.

The field test in March, involving 6,000 students, was a trial run for the entire process. It was set up to find out whether the instructions were adequate, whether there was enough time, whether people could seal the packages. At the end, according to Laing, the analysis will be of the process. Then training begins for people in the field.

The next step is setting standards and determining what constitutes a pass. This will involve educators and people from other parts of the community who are willing to learn what characteristics are being sought and what completed work looks like. The EQAO will recommend standards to the ministry.

Laing reports that during the field testing, they are also working on a policy for accommodating students with special needs.

After the field test, a set of sample materials will go out to schools to give students and teachers an idea of the test format and types of questions.

Starting in 2001, the Grade 10 reading and writing test will be one of the 32 requirements a student needs to graduate. Students who fail will get clear feedback to help them make improvements and they will be able to take the test again. The Minister of Education announced in March that the first province-wide test, in October 2000, will not be a requirement for graduation nor will anyone who fails it have to take it again.

Laing says the EQAO was pleased with this decision. "It will give everybody a fair chance to experience it in their own school and will help teachers feel that they really know what it's about," says Laing. The October test will be marked and results returned to the students.

The EQAO is looking for as many as 1,200 teachers to mark the tests. It appears that the marking will take place over two to three weeks. They are attempting to divide the marking into one-week units so that some teachers will only have to take one week away from the classroom.

Before she went to work on the test, McTavish declares she had a negative attitude toward the test. She says, "The process made me do a 180 in my attitude. Because of the process I realized this is a fair test and a necessary test.

The EQAO is looking for teachers and retired teachers to mark tests. Visit their web site for information on how to apply.