@ Issue Paper No. 16 Making the Grade? Troubling Trends in Postsecondary Student Literacy

Research Summary:

Troubling Trends in Postsecondary Student Literacy

Ontario students headed to college or university might not have the literacy skills they need to be successful, according to a new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). “The timing is especially problematic given that strong literacy skills are critical to students as they graduate into a highly competitive and increasingly globalized labour market,” say the authors of  Making the Grade? Troubling Trends in Postsecondary Student Literacy.

Project description

A synthesis of current literature and literacy data, including those from Statistics Canada and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the HEQCO @Issue paper examines the most recent results from the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS), the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL), the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) to draw conclusions about students’ readiness as they enter postsecondary education. 


The report points to some troubling trends in Canadian literacy achievement, a lack of consistency in expectations for high school students who go on to postsecondary education and the challenges inherent in a more diverse student population with a wider range of language abilities and differing levels of literacy proficiency.

IALS found that not even a quarter of respondents aged 18 to 65 scored above level 3 – considered the minimum level of proficiency. And the results from ALL, which was carried out several years later to follow up on IALS findings, found no substantial improvement in Canadians’ literacy skills in this same age group. The most recent literacy results from PIAAC also registered no improvement but rather a slight deterioration in Canadians’ scores at both ends of the literacy spectrum. 

Results from PISA, which tests students’ abilities in reading, science and math, suggest that while students who score highest on the reading assessment at age 15 are more likely to attend university, a considerable percentage of students scoring below level 3 will also attend. Colleges in particular are attracting students with a much wider range of language abilities, with fewer students from the upper end of the proficiency scale and more students from the lower-mid range. 

Research also reveals conflicting literacy standards for students entering postsecondary education. While the OECD establishes level 3 as the minimum proficiency level for high school graduation, Ontario’s high schools operate with a different standard and the expectations of faculty members for high school graduates set yet another standard. According to the report, this lack of clarity in expectations creates challenges for both students and institutions. 

Recommendations/Further research

Postsecondary institutions need to define the literacy standard they expect of students upon admission and/or at graduation, say the report authors.  And given that an appropriate level of literacy is a fundamental outcome of postsecondary education, colleges and universities should be evaluating entering and exiting literacy skills in all of their students as part of a comprehensive assessment of the achievement of desired learning outcomes.

Anticipated new data from PISA provide opportunities to continue tracking literacy performance. Further research might consider the ways in which both literacy skills and expectations are evolving as reading and writing move into digital environments. The authors note that the gap in expectations between high school graduation and PSE admission also deserves further consideration.

Authors of the @Issue paper Making the Grade? Troubling Trends in Postsecondary Student Literacy are Nicholas Dion and Vicky Maldonado of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.