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December 15, 2003

Literacy tests are discriminatory claim parents and students

From: Toronto Town Crier Newspapers, Canada - Dec 15, 2003

Six families seek changes to mandatory test or will sue government
By Kris Scheuer

Matt Germain, a 17-year-old student with Down’s syndrome and Kristopher Martin, who is deaf, are not like other students. And yet they have to pass the same Ontario Grade 10 literacy test as others in order to graduate from high school. The test is discriminatory, states the lawyer representing six familes.

In fact, more than 20 per cent of this year’s Ontario Grade 12 students will not pass this test, states David Baker, the lawyer representing the Germain and Martin family. He is also representing Anne Wakelin and her son Brian, Junior Davis and his daughter Veronica, Jamie Caine and her mother Thelma Caine-Lewis and a family originally from war-torn Somalia who do not want to be named. These families plan to sue the Ontario government on Jan 15, if it does not agree to change the test, which was introduced by the Tories.

"They have no problem with literacy tests," explained Baker on Dec. 10 the day before a planned press conference at Queen’s Park. "They are in favour of literacy. They are saying that the current literacy test is discriminatory in that people with disabilities are not taken into account."

In the case of Martin, he had a cochlear implant put in to allow him to hear.

"A cochlear implant is a small, complex electronic device that can help to provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly-deaf or severely hard of hearing," according to the Deaf Research Foundation’s website "The implant is surgically placed under the skin behind the ear. It is comprised of an array of electrodes, implanted into the cochlea of the inner ear, which transmit sounds to the auditory nerve and then to the brain."

Some of the other students are taking English as a second language (ESL), but those classes and programs have been severely cut by the previous government, says Baker.

‘The problem is the province’s one size fits all literacy test geared to post-secondary admissions.’ — Lawyer David Baker

Then there are students in the applied English classes. "The literacy test has no relation to what applied students are doing in class."

The result means, "more than 60 per cent of disabled students fail the test. More than 60 per cent of applied students fail and 70 per cent of ESL students fail the test," he says.

And those numbers could be higher because Grade 10 students can defer taking the test until their graduating year and if they did not, a high percentage would fail. "We are saying that if this is not (addressed) by Jan 15, if the government doesn’t scrap the high stake consequences of this test, then we will bring legal action."

The high stakes that he refers to is that students do not get a diploma if they do not pass the test.

"Studies in Ontario and the U.S. have shown that a high percentage of students drop out, so they don’t have to take the test," he told the Town Crier.

Also at issue, he says, is that the tests are not handed back to teachers so they are unable to go over the results with students and provide them with the specific help they require.

Another option the group is seeking is that provincial Liberals defer tests for one year in order to study "the discriminatory practices of this test, which is confirmed by principals, teachers and university professors."

Isn’t literacy important enough that students should be able to pass the test in order to move on?

"Universities, colleges and apprenticeship programs have their own literacy requirements, which they are entitled to have (to screen applicants). The problem is the provinces one size fits all literacy test geared to post-secondary admissions," he says.

"What has happened previously is that if you had the necessary credits for high school and you pass those, you graduate."

What about illiterate students who still manage to graduate?

"If students are passing high school English, but are illiterate, there is something very wrong somewhere," he says. "Canada has the second highest literacy level in the world after Sweden . . . So students who aren’t passing the literacy test have literacy levels that are very acceptable by international standards."

© 2003 Town Crier Media Inc.