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Hamilton girls continue to surpass boys on provincial literacy test

Progress has been made at some schools, including Cathedral High School in Hamilton, where educators have taken steps to address the longtime trend

By Natalie Paddon
The Hamilton Spectator (May 14, 2019)

Hamilton girls continue to outperform boys on Ontario's literacy test, mirroring a longtime provincewide trend, according to a recent report by the Fraser Institute.

The data, drawn from standardized test results, shows the situation is worse in Hamilton where there was an average percentage point difference of 14.2 favouring girls last year. That's compared to the provincial average of 11.8, said Angela MacLeod, a senior policy analyst with the think tank.

Provincially, the difference is up from 9.6 in 2014, which MacLeod said isn't considered statistically significant.

The information is based on the percentage of students who passed the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test (OSSLT) on their first eligible year and was published in the Fraser Institute's controversial annual report card on Ontario's secondary schools, which ranks public, Catholic, francophone and independent schools on nine academic performance measures.

"We're measuring this because we want schools to be performing equally well for boys and for girls and meeting all of their needs," MacLeod said.

This trend, which is not new, extends outside the province and even the country.

A 2009 research paper from Ontario's Education Quality and Accountability Office says girls' superiority in reading and writing has been "a widely observed, relatively static pattern" for at least the past four decades.

In Hamilton, literacy test results at 22 of the 23 schools included in the report favoured girls in 2018. Compare that to 2014, when the results at 20 of the 23 local schools favoured girls.

Last year's results range from a 29.3 percentage point difference at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School, which is located near Queenston Road and Parkdale Avenue North, to a 0.8 percentage point difference at Cathedral High School on Wentworth Street North.

What's not clear from the data is the reason behind the gender gap, MacLeod said.

"The next step and the next logical question is what's going on and what can we do to make sure that boys and girls are succeeding on a much more equal level."

Hamilton's Catholic board has been highlighting their "serious concerns" with the gender gap for more than two decades and formed a committee to address the issue many years ago, said chair Pat Daly.

One year's worth of data does not indicate a trend, and the gap can swing significantly based on a particular cohort or circumstances at a school in a particular year.

But at Cathedral, where the gap dropped to a percentage point difference of 0.8 last year from 29.4 the year prior, staff had introduced a number of strategies to address the issue, Daly said.

Those range from looking at Grades 3 and 6 EQAO results and working with small groups of boys to provide intervention strategies, to implementing an additional English course focused on literacy strategies to help boys.

There are also professional development sessions for teachers, Daly said.

"Although sometimes it's difficult to identify it in the numbers, clearly progress has been made," the longtime chair said.

"Saying that, I think at both levels of government — at the school board level and the provincial — we have to continue to do more, find creative solutions and additional resources to reduce that gap, and I think as a society as well."

Hamilton public school superintendent of student achievement Bill Torrens acknowledges girls are outperforming boys on the literacy test as well as on the EQAO test in Grades 3 and 6 reading and writing.

But rather than gender-based approaches, the public board has focused on socioeconomic-based approaches over the last five years to close the "achievement gap," he said.

One in five Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board students use a language other than English at home, and the board has a high number of students with learning disabilities, Torrens pointed out.

Over the past couple of years, the board has implemented strategies around early reading for kindergarten and Grade 1 students and closing the literacy gap for students in Grades 7 through 10.

Crucial to that is making sure students have choice in what they read, including both fiction and non-fiction works, Torrens said.

At the high school level, the public board has secondary literacy coaches who work in schools that have struggled with OSSLT results. The goal is to ensure they have as many boys as girls graduating.

"Graduation is vital to us," Torrens said.

In an emailed statement, the Education Quality and Accountability Office acknowledged the difference in achievement by gender but stressed the larger gap is between course types.
In the English system, boys made up 65 per cent of applied courses last year, and only 37 per cent of those boys passed the literacy test. In academic courses, 88 per cent of boys passed.

"In fact, EQAO data have shown a gap between achievement results for students in academic and in applied courses for many years," the statement reads.

The Ministry of Education said it works to break down OSSLT results to determine possible reasons why results have declined for some groups of students. There are many factors that could impact results, spokesperson Heather Irwin said.

"For example, scores for boys are consistently lower than for girls; this may be explained by the fact that more girls than boys engage in reading and writing activities outside the classroom," Irwin wrote.

The ministry provides funding to boards for literacy through various grants, she added.

Annie Kidder, the executive director of People for Education, said the data are an important starting point, but followup is needed to understand exactly what it means.

"I think there's a little bit of a tendency ... to go, 'I'm sure I know why that's happening,' and sometimes we act on that sort of instinctive reaction to it," she said. "That's where we have to be careful in education."

Over the years, the previous gender gap that favoured boys in math has pretty much levelled out, MacLeod, from the Fraser Institute, pointed out.

With the divide still there for literacy, she questions how educators and policy-makers can ensure education is meeting the needs of all kids.

"These are basic skills to go on and lead a successful, prosperous adulthood," she said.
905-526-2420 | @NatatTheSpec

Student success teacher Amanda Ottolino works with Grade 10 students at Cathedral High School. The school created an elective for Grade 10 students called Literacy Skills: Reading and Writing to help students who might be struggling with provincial literacy standards. - Scott Gardner,The Hamilton Spectator
Student success teacher Amanda Ottolino works with Grade 10 students at Cathedral High School. The school created an elective for Grade 10 students called Literacy Skills: Reading and Writing to help students who might be struggling with provincial literacy standards. - Scott Gardner,The Hamilton Spectator