Canada’s most recent results (2015) in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which include mathematics, science and reading every 3 years for 15 year old students have been much admired.
In August 2017, the BBC called Canada “education superpower” because we were one of the top ranking countries. However, in–depth analysis indicates that our high school students’ performance, of mathematics in particular, has remained stagnant or declined over the past decade. Canada’s improved ranking was due in part to decrease in the performances of students in some countries.1
According to the C.D. Howe Institute Commentary (No. 27 May 2015), a “strong grasp of mathematics is required for success in the workforce, and early achievement in math is one of the best predictors of later academic success and future career options.”
Comparisons of Provinces
In the 2015 PISA results, Canada declined in Math scores overall compared to the last assessment in 2012.2 Generally, Math has become a divisive issue across the country as test scores declined or remained flat in every province except Quebec and Prince Edward Island.
Quebec not only improved its score but continued to come out top in Mathematics relative to the Canadian average in the PISA results while Ontario and provinces in the Maritimes and Prairies were below the average. Of interest is PEI which improved its score over the last PISA results despite being below the national average.
Although the 2015 PISA results stated that there might be a non-response bias in Quebec, other assessments have ranked Quebec as the leader in Mathematics. In the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP) for Grade 8 students, Quebec was the only province that is above the national average in Mathematics. Ontario on the other hand was the sole province that showed no improvement over a period from 2010 – 2016 in this latest PCAP report.
Proportion of Grade 6 students in Ontario meeting the provincial math standard decreased from 57% in 2013 to 49% in 2018
In the 2018 Education, Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) results, the percentage of elementary Grade 3 and Grade 6 students meeting the provincial math standard decreased over the last five years.3 An increasingly number of families has sought private tutoring to boost the students’ grades and it’s possible that the scores might even be worse without this.
Results for Grade 3 students fell to 61% in 2018 from 67% in 2013. More alarming was the results for Grade 6 students which decreased from 57% in 2013 to 49% in 2018.
In high school, of the 96,996 Grade 9 Academic stream math students, 84% did well and met the provincial math standard which remained high over the last five years. However, the 33,451 students enrolled in the Applied stream struggled with 45% in 2018 meeting provincial standard.
Although the results for the Academic and Applies Grade 9 streams have been stable, there is a need to improve the performances of students in the latter. Some experts have said that eliminating streaming is the way to go. In a Toronto Star article (January 2018), it was said that TDSB was going to de-stream over 3 years.
Divisive issue of Math education across Canada
There are two different camps on how to approach the stagnation or decline in math education across Canada.
Many educators and families are pushing for the Traditional Math Method saying that the Discovery Math Model introduced in the Canadian curriculum has led to a decline in the math standard in the country. They contend that the key is to devote more class time to work on basic fundamentals like addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, decimals and fractions.
This Traditional approach has been strongly advocated in the research done by Anna Stokke in the C.D. Howe Institute commentary (Commentary No. 427 May 2015). According to this commentary, “student fluency with particular math concepts, such as fraction arithmetic, in early and middle years has been shown to predict future math success”.
On the other side, proponents of Discovery Math stress on problem-based and experiential learning where students need to apply thinking skills to problem solve in our increasingly complex and globalization world. To them, math education should not be limited to computational skills in arithmetic; non-computational skills such as data analysis plays a very important part in Big Data analytics where large amounts of data are studied to find hidden patterns, correlations and other insights to help us understand our society better.
What can be done?
Let’s look at the performances of two provinces in the latest PISA and PCAP results, Quebec and PEI. Quebec was above average in both PISA and PCAP while PEI performed below average in PISA and average in PCAP but has improved the performances of its students.
Quebec adopted Discovery Math and has consistently been doing well in it. In addition, its performances in Science and Reading have been on par with or better than the Canadian average. The core of its success lies in the investment in teaching. A Bachelor of Education in Quebec takes four years to complete, during which future teachers spend at least 700 hours in elementary of secondary classrooms (National Post September 2017)
It was further mentioned that in Ontario, teachers often get a four-year undergraduate diploma before starting a two year teaching degree. Ontario has elementary school through Grade 8 while high school in Quebec begins in Grade 7 and ends in Grade 11. Hence, Quebec student in Grade 7 and 8 are taught by “math specialists” while their peers in Ontario are taught by teachers trained to teach elementary school.
PEI’s result is below the Canadian average as seen in the 2015 PISA results but its math performance actually improved over the last assessment. Also noteworthy is that in the latest 2016 PCAP for grade 8 students, PEI’s students made significant gains in mathematics since 2010.
Why is this so we ask? PEI has invested heavily in training teachers and front line staff. It has also put into place strong leadership in the education department and school board as well provide well-being supports that help students reach their full learning potential.4
Pueblo Science’s Hands-on Math Activities
With our Canadian and international RISE programs, Pueblo Science has been delivering activities and learning kits to engage young students in math and sciences through active, hands-on learning experiences, discovery, experimentation and problem-solving opportunities.
For example, to teach about probability distributions, we use marbles falling down a pyramid of styrofoam cups; we present several math concepts such as basic statistics and the mobius strip, and more broadly, how to approach problem solving and estimation through mathemagic tricks and demonstrations with lots of class and audience participation!
This blog article was written by Russell K. Hassan.
2 Council of Ministers of Education Canada (CMEC). Measuring up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study 2015 First Results for Canadians Aged 15
3 http://www.eqao.com/en/assessments/results. No testing in the 2014-15 school year due to labour disruption
4 www.princeedwardisland.ca/en/news (April 30 2018)