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Secular changes in the factors affecting literacy scores

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In a synthetic cohort study it is difficult to assess whether changes in literacy scores for a jurisdiction, such as a province or community, are related to specific policy initiatives. This is because the statistical power is not strong enough to disentangle effects associated with period and cohort effects at this level. As noted earlier, one needs prospective longitudinal studies, and local monitoring systems that collect data that is sensitive to interventions. However, the ALL data can provide a general indication as to what factors are changing in the right direction. The analyses above suggested that while a person's age and gender play a role, their participation in the labour market, their level of educational attainment, their participation in further education and training, and their engagement in literacy activities at work and at home are all related to their literacy skills.

Table 4 is a provincial scorecard which shows the percentage of adults who had attained various levels of educational attainment, the percent not in the labour force, the percent that had received further education or training, and the percent that had engaged in literacy activities at home and  at work. The results pertain to the cohorts aged 16 to 65 in each province, and for all of Canada, rather than for the synthetic cohorts used in the analyses above. The 1994 estimates of these indicators are not as accurate as the 2003 estimates at the provincial level, because the 1994 IALS sample was much smaller than the ALL sample. However, with the combined sample, one can obtain relatively accurate estimates of the change from 1994 to 2003 on each indicator, and the jackknife weighting methodology allows one to discern whether any observed changes are statistically significant. Positive changes, such as lower rates of students not finishing secondary school, lower rates of people not in the labour force, or higher rates of engagement in literacy practices are shown in green, while negative changes are shown in light pink.

The results show that in all provinces the percentage of adults who had not completed secondary school decreased over the 9-year period. Some of this change is attributable simply to demographic changes: the older adults in the 16 to 65 age range on average have fewer education credentials than young adults, and therefore as the older adults leave the cohort and younger adults join it, the average level of education increases. However, some of the secular changes are attributable to changes in school practices at the primary and secondary levels, and to increased access to post-secondary programs. The net result is that the percentage of adults that had left secondary school before graduating decreased in every province, and by 11% for all of Canada.

Table 4 Factors affecting literacy skills, percentage of adults aged 16 to 65, 1994 and the percent change from 1994 to 2003. Opens a new browser window.

Table 4 Factors affecting literacy skills, percentage of adults aged 16 to 65, 1994 and the percent change from 1994 to 2003

Changes in secondary school graduation rates, shown in the second pair of rows, are slightly more difficult to interpret as being favourable or unfavourable, because an increased prevalence in this category could be attributable to either a decrease in the prevalence of adults not completing secondary school, or to a decrease in post-secondary participation. In Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Quebec the increases in secondary graduation rates can be interpreted as positive because they are associated with marked decreases in the prevalence of non-completion and increases in post-secondary participation. In contrast, the prevalence of secondary school graduates in Alberta and British Columbia decreased, but this is clearly associated with a shift towards greater post-secondary participation.

In all provinces there was an overall increase in post-secondary education, in terms of adults attending some post-secondary, completing university, or both. These increases are evident in the national charts, with increases of 8.3% attending some post-secondary, and 3.9% completing university.

The rates of participation in further education and training also increased dramatically, with significant increases in every province, and a national increase of 11.4%. Moreover, the inter-provincial distribution of further education and training became more equitable, as provinces with low levels in 1994 tended to achieve larger increases over the 9-year period; Newfoundland and Labrador and Manitoba are good examples, while Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, which had relatively high levels of participation in 1994 had smaller increases.

The pattern of engagement in literacy activities at work is less even. In three provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, and Manitoba, the levels of engagement in general work activities increased. However, these three provinces had levels of engagement that were below national norms in 1994. These increases brought Nova Scotia and Manitoba close to the national norm of about 32%, but Newfoundland and Labrador still lags behind. Five provinces, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia, had significantly lower levels of general work engagement in 2003 than in 1994. These decreases brought each of the provinces to within 2 to 3% of the 2003 national norm. The levels of work engagement for Quebec and Ontario remained steady over the period, also close to the national norm.

All provinces except Newfoundland and Labrador and Alberta had increased levels of engagement in technical literacy activities at work, which undoubtedly reflects the increased demand for technical skills in most occupations. Newfoundland and Labrador's level of engagement was comparable to national norms in 1994, but by 2003 it had fallen significantly behind. Alberta level was above national norms in 1994, and it maintained its relatively high position.

The starkest finding of this analysis is the substantial decrease in people's engagement in literacy activities at home, which parallels a similar decline in the US (National Endowment for the Arts, 2004). Nationally, the percentage of adults scoring above the 1.5 point threshold fell from about 48% to 40% from 1994 to 2003, which is a decrease of nearly 1% per year. All provinces except Prince Edward Island had significant decreases in home engagement over this period. Although the effects of this secular change is arguably offset by higher levels of formal education and greater participation in further education and training, they undoubtedly contribute to the skill loss revealed in the previous analyses of this report.

The results presented in Tables 2 and 4 present a paradox about the effects of post-secondary education. On the one hand, education levels increased during the period 1994 to 2003. The prevalence of adults who failed to complete secondary school fell by 11%, while the prevalence of those who had completed college and university programs increased by about 8% and 4% respectively. However, the results in Table 2 indicate that the average levels of literacy skills of adults not completing secondary school remained about the same, changing from 241 to 237. In contrast, the average level of literacy skills of college students fell from 303 to 282, while that of university graduates fell from 317 to 304. The results clearly indicate that adults who attend Post-secondary education have much higher skills than those who do not pursue Post-secondary education. However, it may be that as provinces expand Post-secondary education, students with lower levels of literacy skills are selected, and these students reduce the observed difference associated with Post-secondary education.