By Kevin Cheung, Associate Professor, School of Mathematics and Statistics

A recent article in The Globe and Mail had the following headline: “One in four Ontario postsecondary students lacks basic literacy, numeracy skills, studies say.”  The reports for the actual studies can be found on the HECQO website.

The authors of the studies did note the limitations of their work. As reported in the news article, “Students volunteered or were recruited for the studies, and therefore the sample was not random or representative; nor were the same students tested at the beginning and end of their schooling. However, Dr. Weingarten said this research provides the basis for future experiments that could begin to determine what works best in higher education.”

In my opinion, the lack of a proper control group was a missed opportunity with these studies.  It would have been informative to test a random sample of adults already in the workforce. Nevertheless, the substantial number of students who did not appear to meet the expectations is an uncomfortable fact. I wondered if the students who took the tests were even trying.

If one takes a look at page 11 in one of the appendices for the studies, numeracy level three includes the ability to “determine the price of a single bottle of water when given the cost of an entire case of bottles,” the ability to “read a complex graph, comparing the amount of salt, sugar and fat in a typical diet for men versus a typical diet for women, to determine the amount of sugar consumed by men,” and a few others. One might find that middle school or even elementary school children have these abilities.

Are Ontario university students really that weak? I am not so sure. What I am quite sure of is that most (all?) of the Ontario university students must have, at some point in their lives, been able to demonstrate these abilities and beyond. Otherwise, how did they get through high school and be accepted into universities? I cannot believe that the Ontario education system is so broken that students can get through K-12 without having learned any basic skills.

The question, I think, is not if the students have learned these basic skills. The question is whether or not students should be expected to retain basic skills that they are rarely or never asked to demonstrate after they have learned them.

Before jumping to conclusions, consider the following: Grade 9 students who are relatively healthy are usually required to run 1 or 2 miles in their phys-ed classes. Being able to run a mile under eight minutes is not an unreasonable fitness expectation for relatively healthy individuals. (The current world record for the mile by a male is 3:43.13 and that by a female is 4:12.56). But if you ask a random sample of adults in Ontario out of the blue to run a mile under eight minutes, what is the proportion that will succeed? Unless they have been keeping up with their fitness, they would have a hard time.

Similarly, students who have taken Grade 9 French would know the basics of French. But if you take a random sample of adults in Ontario who have taken high school French but are not French-speaking or bilingual, how well can they understand a random article in a French newspaper?

The reality is that even the most basic skills can be forgotten. Is it the responsibility of the education system to ensure that students retain what they have learned until they have found full-time employment? And if so, how much?