Testing literacy today requires more than a pencil and paper


Large-scale testing, or what many know as standardized testing, often carries important consequences for students. The results of large-scale tests may be used by schools or policy-makers to make important decisions such as grouping students by ability or assessing how well schools are doing.

Yet when it comes to literacy testing, while the competencies of literacy have changed in our digital, globalized world, the methods that many educational systems use to assess literacy have not.

One recent analysis of standardized tests in the United States, for example, found tests haven’t changed much over the last 100 years: tests are mostly multiple choice, with questions geared toward assessing skills like vocabulary, recall and comprehension.

In Canada today, on such large-scale standardized tests, students are likely to read a passage and answer a series of multiple-choice questions. Students might have an opportunity to write a short answer or essay response. Provincial tests, for the most part, continue to prioritize measuring traditional literacy skills of reading and writing with answers primarily communicated via pencil-to-paper. Such a testing structure forms the basis for public accountability in many provinces.

Across Canada, researchers and educators have documented the need to transform how the provinces assess literacy and consider more innovative designs. Testing should accurately capture what children are learning without detracting from authentic teaching and learning.

What literacy means today

Formerly, literacy was broadly understood to encompass four domains: reading, writing, speaking and listening. But today, how we define literacy has changed.

Firstly, literacy is now understood to involve skills and knowledge related to all modes of visual representation and digital communications. Today’s students tend to read shorter texts within a variety of platforms on social media, websites and apps. Schools now teach literacy through visual, moving image and even sound-based texts that children and teenagers encounter when reading and writing online.

Pencil-to-paper tests won’t capture the full range of competencies involved with literacy today. (Shutterstock)

Secondly, literacy today is also understood to be about how students can use knowledge and skills related to personal and citizen engagement and agency. According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), literacy involves the “capacity for social awareness and critical reflection as a basis for personal and social change.”

These forms of literacy teaching and learning — both multimedia literacy related to varied forms of representation and expression and applied literacy — are called multiliteracies.

Large-scale literacy testing needs to keep pace with how the skills related to these concepts are practised in classooms, assessed by teachers and mandated by provincial curriculum.

Overall, curriculum is increasingly emphasizing a more holistic concept of literacy developmentThe English curriculum in Ontarioacknowledges students’ literacy development is not understood solely as reading and writing. B.C and Alberta similarly recognize the changing nature of literacy.

Revamping large-scale testing for the 21st century

The need to reconsider large-scale testing formats was recently acknowledged by Andreas Schleicher, director for the directorate of education and skills for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — the organization that administers the most prominent cross-comparative test in the world, the Programme for International Student Assessment  (PISA). He recently said PISA is trying to move away from multiple choice to have more adaptive, engaging formats.

In Singapore — the country that performs highest in PISA global tests — the minister of education recently announced a reduction in testing for students to better balance rigour and “the joy of learning.”

When we understand literacy to also be about developing adaptive and connective skills in our rapidly changing world, we can see that such decisions to transform assessment are not potentially downplaying literacy, but rather, potentially enhancing it.

In Canada, assessment reforms and innovations are slowly taking shape. For example, British Columbia revised its Foundational Skills Assessments in 2018 to include collaboration and self-reflection. Alberta also made changes to large-scale provincial achievement tests to focus on assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning.

And in Ontario, a 2018 report to the premier recommended replacing the Ontario secondary school literacy test, now a graduation requirement. Researchers who conducted the review (including one of the authors of this story, Carol), as well as those invited to comment as assessment experts (Chris and Louis), made a number of other recommendations including integrating technology for large-scale asessment of students’ learning and progress.

If we are to support literacy skills for the 21st century then we must explore how large-scale testing might capture students’ contemporary literacy competencies, and also how the testing itself might integrate contemporary practices and understandings of literacy.

For example, computerized testing could allow for timely feedback that would close the gap between testing and feedback for learning. Right now, any curricular changes to address demonstrated gaps in learning are often communicated months after the large-scale test.

We need to change how we assess literacy. Ministries of education have the expertise and capacity to modernize our assessment systems. We are hoping there is the political will to do so.

Author Bios: Louis Volante is Professor, Faculty of Education at Brock University, Carol Campbell is Associate Professor of Leadership and Educational Change, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Christopher DeLuca is an Associate Professor in Classroom Assessment and Acting Associate Dean, Graduate Studies & Research, Faculty of Education at Queen’s University, Ontario, Jennifer Rowsell is Canada Research Chair in Multiliteracies and Lorenzo Cherubini is a Professor both at Brock University