TORONTO - Ontario's education minister says the government needs a strategy for applied and English-as-a-Second Language students whose literacy rates seem to be stagnating, although test results overall remain high.

"We're obviously looking for further improvement. We're not going to rest on our laurels. We know there's more to be done,'' Kathleen Wynne said in an interview.

"We can tell from the data where there's work to be done, and it's in those areas that we need to have a targeted response.''

The Education Quality and Accountability Office, an arm's length agency that administers the literacy test, announced Wednesday 84 per cent of the 146,000 Grade 10 students who wrote the test in March passed this year on the first try.

That's the same number as in 2006, but the first time the overall pass rate has stalled after steadily rising over the last five years: 72 per cent in 2002-2003, 77 per cent in 2003-2004, 82 per cent in 2004-2005, and 84 per cent in 2005-2006.

Students need a passing grade on the test to finish high school.

The province doesn't have a set target for the literacy test, Wynne said. Instead, the government has set a target of an 85 per cent high school graduation rate by 2010. Currently Ontario has about a 74 per cent graduation rate.

Wynne said the number of students who pass the literacy test is linked to the number of students who graduate.

"The more kids who pass the test, the more kids who are going to be graduating from high school,'' she said.

The agency's CEO, Marguerite Jackson, said it's important to put the results in perspective by looking at trends over a longer period. She said the agency wasn't satisfied with the test scores five years ago, but she's been "very satisfied with the growth and improvement'' since.

"It's a high watermark, if you wish, and it's a good improvement over the last five years,'' Jackson said.

"Moving beyond that will require some very focused intervention for students who are struggling.''

Wynne said she doesn't know why the overall pass rate for students taking the test for the first time is stuck at 84 per cent, but "those are the questions we have to ask.''

The test results showed the most stagnation among students taking applied English courses and students whose first language is not English. Those students' scores have remained largely unchanged for the last three years.

Wynne suggested more high school preparation needs to be done in the lower grades.

"We're doing some work with Grade 8 kids but I think we need to look at those Grade 7 and 8 years and understand what more we could be doing to get kids ready for high school,'' Wynne said.

The education minister also said the province expects to introduce a new policy statement by the fall which would serve as a check and balance on government English as a Second Language funding.

"We're going to be requiring more accountability in terms of ESL dollars that go to boards actually being spent on English as a second language,'' Wynne said.

It's difficult to gauge the progress of second-language students, Jackson said, because the group is made up of students who speak English with varying degrees of proficiency. A student is considered to be working in a second language for three to five years from the time they enter the school system, she said.

"When you look at this year, you don't know from that data how many students have been here three years, how many have been here five years, how many have just arrived,'' she said.

The president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation says he's concerned about how clear a picture a one-day test paints of students' ability levels.

"We are, as a federation, very much opposed to this high-stakes testing,'' Ken Coran said.

The teachers' federation, which represents the province's high school teachers and educational workers, is calling for more government funding to help students with lower test scores.

Literacy scores between male and female students appear to be improving at equal rates. Eighty per cent of boys and 87 per cent of girls passed this year's test - the same seven percentage point spread that separated them in 2002.