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Things don’t add up as math scores continue to slide

Only the most bogus of new-math calculations would fail to reveal Ontario’s continuing downward spiral in mathematical skills. Figures released last week by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) show declining scores are no blip.

The percentage of students in Grades 3 and 6 who met the provincial math standard has decreased steadily over the past five years. Half of all Grade 6 students did not meet the provincial math standard in 2016. At the Grade 9 level, only 45 per cent of applied math students meet the provincial standard, though 83 per cent of those in the higher, academic stream make the grade.

While most Grade 3 students pass the test, that number has fallen to 63 per cent from 68 per cent just four years ago.

Critics point out that the declines appear in tandem to changes in the mathematics curriculum.

Increasingly, those with a real understanding of math and science are pointing the finger at how math is taught to young children. Terms like “self-actualized,” “inquiry-based” and “self-discovery” are being debunked. Studies show that math grades have dropped in Ontario since the government placed “problem solving” at the heart of its math curriculum in 2005, another reform that’s been the norm rather than the exception for more than three decades.

There’s nothing wrong with encouraging creativity, as much of the current curriculum does – likewise in other subjects – but when scores continue to fall, those responsible for the new math must be prepared to alter course.

Given all the attention the subject has received in recent months, there’s every reason to point the finger at the curriculum. University professors have been critical of the skills – or lack thereof – exhibited by students who’ve come through the public system. Even basic literacy has been questioned. But nowhere has the gap been more noticeable than in math and sciences. It’s they who’ve stressed the need for a return to basics, including rote learning of things like multiplication tables.

Aside from doing wrong by the kids subjected to the new teaching methods, there’s a wider issue at play. We’re all aware of the shift to a knowledge-based economy that values scientific skills above all else, particularly as they apply to computers and engineering. Canada has been falling behind in this regard, as a recent study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that found performance of the country’s 15-year-olds in math has been in a decline, with a 14-point dip in the past decade.

Some other provinces have been moving away from so-called “inquiry-based” curriculum, returning to some of the basic skills that have been taken out of the curriculum previously. (Quebec, which has the most traditional method of teaching, has the highest scores in the country.)

Because math is a cumulative skill, with concepts building on each other, a poor foundation means trouble as a child is moved along through the system without understanding of the basics, which happens far too often.

The Ontario government has finally acknowledged there are problems, including with the fact that many teachers have little if any grounding in mathematics, even those who teach the subject.

There are plenty of people invested in the current model. They will have to be persuaded the system does not work. On that, the facts speak for themselves, and no amount of fuzzy logic will change them.


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