English 9, the ‘gateway drug’ of high school subjects

A horrible rumour is sweeping the student dropoff zones in Whitehorse. It is that 64 per cent of Grade 9s failed the English Language Arts 9 Yukon Achievement Test exam last June.

A horrible rumour is sweeping the student dropoff zones in Whitehorse.

It is that 64 per cent of Grade 9s failed the English Language Arts 9 Yukon Achievement Test exam last June. I have heard it from a half-dozen people, including some who are well placed in the education system.

I thought the number had to be wrong. How could two thirds of the students have failed? So I went to the Department of Education’s website to check the results from eight months ago. The results weren’t posted.

A quick email to the department confirmed that they have not published the results and are sitting on them until the next sitting of the Legislative Assembly. This usually takes place in late March or April.

It did seem strange when my child’s Grade 9 achievement tests results arrived by mail in February 2012. An entire semester had elapsed since she wrote the test in June 2011.

I decided to check out if other jurisdictions also wait to release test scores eight to 10 months after the test. I googled Alberta school districts since they write the same achievement test as Yukon kids, and picked one at random: Alberta School District #68 in Claresholm.

Just to be clear, Claresholm is not known as the Harvard of Alberta or anything. But it does appear to do a better job reporting education results to students, parents, businesses and others interested in this critical public service.

District #68 released its test scores on Oct. 5, 2011. For those still recovering from Rendezvous and not sure what month it is, that is more than four months ago. Nor did District #68 supremos try to massage the numbers or clutter them with excuses. “At Grade 9, our student performance is a concern. In all four provincial exams students performed below expectations and the provincial acceptable level. A thorough analysis of both jurisdictional and school data is underway to determine areas of strength and areas of need along with required support” is how it described the data when it released it to the public.

Our friends in the N.W.T. didn’t wait for its legislature, either. Its education people just booked a meeting room one Thursday night in early January 2012 and released the results.

Meanwhile, here in the Yukon, we’ve heard more about the June 2011 Yukon Achievement Test results from the ground squirrels hibernating under the department’s front lawn on Lewes Boulevard than from the officials paid big bucks to keep track of this kind of thing.

According to playground rumour, three per cent of the Yukon students who wrote the English 9 exam scored “excellent” (defined as over 80 per cent) and 33 per cent scored “success” (over 50 per cent) and 64 per cent failed. Since 1994, the Yukon’s target has been for 85 per cent to score “success” or higher. That’s an “epic fail,” as Katy Perry says.

When you talk to officials at the Department of Education, they often pooh-pooh these test results for a number of reasons. They say it’s an Alberta test and we use the B.C. curriculum. The test is just one day’s performance. It doesn’t measure the fully rounded educational attainments of the child. The child may know the material, but not be good at tests. They also note that the Yukon has a much higher mix of rural and First Nation students who, statistically speaking, tend not to score as highly on these tests.

Many of these statistical concerns have some validity. One would not want to stake one’s entire evaluation of a school system, or an individual student, on one test.

Nonetheless, a 64 per cent failure rate is some kind of loud alarm bell. English 9 is the “gateway drug” of high school subjects. It can lead to many things. In fact, it is hard to imagine many people could be successful in academics, trades or indeed adult life in general if they did not have the communications skills you need to pass English 9.

Also, I don’t accept the “rural/First Nation demographic” argument. These students have just as great a need to have the foundations of English 9 as the rest of the students. Persistent failure here is not a fact of life we have to live with like the weather, but a challenge for us as a society to do something helpful about. Over the next 10 years, many of these students will be applying for jobs in our booming resource sector. Dropping out of high school after failing English 9 does not help in job interviews.

Sometimes, in private conversations, education officials also suggest that the Whitehorse kids are doing fine, but the Yukon average is “dragged down” by rural underperformance. But the numbers show Whitehorse students struggled on the test too. In 2010, there were 382 Grade 9s in the Yukon, 288 at three high schools in Whitehorse, 81 rural, seven in the francophone school and six in the Individual Learning Centre. Even if one assumes that all 81 of the rural kids failed, an overall 64 per cent failure rate still means that over half of Whitehorse Grade 9s failed the test.

Furthermore, there is the shocking lag in reporting the results publicly. Many of the students who “bombed” English 9 in June 2011 have since taken a full semester of studies where their parents and maybe even their teachers didn’t know how they did on the June 2011 test. That makes it harder to pitch in to help these students.

My friend’s partner in Ontario is a “credit-salvage” teacher. She parachutes in whenever a student is headed off-track and tries to get them through school with a pass. Lots of people criticize credit salvage and would prefer the students were successful in regular class in the first place, but a credit-salvage program is a lot better than sitting on students’ failed test results for six months and just signing them all up for regular English 10 or Communications 10 classes.

Education officials may eventually release the results and prove the rumour wrong, perhaps with some subtle criticism of hyperventilating parents and wild-eyed newspaper columnists. My challenge to them would be twofold. Firstly, instead of a lot of grand talk about strategic plans and experiential education, just publish how our Grade 9s do next year before the folks in Claresholm, Alberta. And secondly, have some of the dozens of people who work at department headquarters go out in the field and do “credit salvage” with any kids who fail the next English 9 achievement test.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.