News article: Post-secondary institutes grappling with literacy levels amid “no-fail” debate

By ADAM HURAS

FREDERICTON – The province is at a “crossroads” in determining who provides the literacy skills needed to ready New Brunswickers for post-secondary learning and beyond, says the president of New Brunswick Community College.

Amid debate over an automatic promotion rule that sees students passing grades regardless of whether they pass their courses, Marilyn Luscombe says community college officials are part of a review of the high school curriculum.

The community college president says there continues to be a substantial need for academic upgrading of basic literacy skills for students who have left the secondary school system.

Meetings with high school principals and superintendents are being conducted to determine how to close a clear gap.

“We have to come together in New Brunswick in partnership with the secondary system and with community literacy organizations and figure out more clearly who does what and how can we ensure that more people enter the post-secondary education system and have the skills to be successful,” Luscombe said. “It’s much more than the no-fail policy.

“It’s a lot of elements.”

Talk about the future of the education system was sparked by a call from New Democrat Leader Dominic Cardy to get rid of a “no-failure” policy that allows New Brunswick students to graduate from grade to grade without meeting all academic requirements.

Premier David Alward has since asserted that students aren’t being given an automatic pass, insisting that New Brunswick has an inclusive education system that has made the province “leaders globally in helping ensure that every child is able to meet their fullest potential.”

The inclusive education policy is found on the government’s website in an Education Department document dated September 2013.

Policy 6.7.1 states that “New Brunswick public schools must not use grade retention as a standard educational practice.”

The policy says that while grade retention is not a standard practice, if the school and or parents consider it appropriate in an individual case, it is ultimately a last option.

Post-Secondary Education Minister Jody Carr has also weighed in, saying that no passing students who don’t do well in school is an “absurd” tactic with detrimental social impacts that those in favour of the policy are not considering.

“I have no specific evidence handy to me that some of the literacy issues we experience – and I’ve experienced ever since I joined the college system 28 and a half years ago – are result of (a no-fail policy,)” Luscombe said. “There are and there will always be literacy issues with some students that come into our system.”

But those problems are more glaring in New Brunswick. The most recent results of an annual global study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development measuring adult literacy, numeracy and digital problem-solving skills once again scored New Brunswick near the bottom compared with its provincial counterparts.

“More so in New Brunswick than in other provinces there are literacy issues and we are meeting and planning some more meetings with principals and superintendents in the spring,” Luscombe said. “One of the issues that we are talking about with them is the transition from secondary school to college, including academic preparation.

“We also have people at NBCC in our academic development department now who are sitting in on meetings in terms of reviews that are being undertaken in regards to the high school curriculum.

“The issues of the preparation of students will and likely has been one of the conversations.”

Whether the so-called “no-fail” policy will be part of the discussion remains to be seen.

“Certainly, now that it’s such a hot topic, I’m sure in future meetings that we have it will be a topic of discussion,” she said.

Luscombe said part of the discussion needs to include inspiring learners to be interested enough in their studies to think about post-secondary education as a goal.

“There are a fair number of people in our secondary system who have no thought in their minds about coming to post-secondary education,” she said.

Luscombe cited the Tory government’s labour force and skills development strategy released last August that specifically calls for the kindergarten to Grade 12 and post-secondary education systems to prepare students adequately for labour force needs.

She said that document signals a need to re-evaluate the education system as a whole.

Carr cited the same skills development strategy when speaking to work that is in progress to strengthen the existing system.

“That’s why we have a goal that each student leaves high school with a post-high school plan that gets them into employment, that meets the skills we need in post-secondary,” Carr said.

Luscombe said that work is continuing.

“I think there is still a lot of figuring out,” she said. “We continue to recognize that there is a need for the provision of these services.

“Right now, I think we are at a crossroads of figuring out how and who provides them and in what ways.”