Don’t just blame COVID for Alberta’s falling test scores

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Appeared in the Western Standard, January 31, 2023
Don’t just blame COVID for Alberta’s falling test scores

Alberta’s standardized test scores dropped significantly between the 2018-19 and 2021-22 school years—in some subjects, by 20 per cent.

A decline of this magnitude demands an explanation. Of course, it’s easy to blame the pandemic because COVID-19, or more specifically, the public health restrictions implemented by the province, negatively impacted student learning. School closures were particularly harmful, and we learned that remote learning is a poor substitute for in-person learning. It’s no surprise that students fell behind academically over the last three years.

However, it wasn’t just COVID. Years of poor decisions by the provincial government set Alberta schools on a downward track.

In fact, Alberta test scores started dropping long before the pandemic. Between 2000 and 2018, Alberta students showed declines in reading, math and science as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Math scores took the biggest tumble, with only Manitoba showing a bigger decline over the same period.

It doesn’t help that previous Progressive Conservative and NDP governments undermined the provincial achievement tests, one of the most important tools used to measure student achievement, by reducing the value of the Grade 12 diploma exams and scrapping the standardized tests previously written by Grade 3 students. Fortunately, the current Alberta government has publicly committed to keep standardized tests in place. This is a welcome change in direction.

The dramatic decline in math scores deserves special attention because it largely coincides with the adoption of a math curriculum that downplayed the importance of practice and memorization and encouraged students to invent their own ways of solving math questions. Instead of learning the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, students were expected to invent their own.

This approach, often referred to as “discovery math,” faced substantial pushback from concerned parents. One of those parents, Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies, led the charge to pressure the province to bring back a more traditional approach to the curriculum. Tran-Davies received significant support from university math professors who saw all too clearly the devastating impact of discovery math on their incoming students.

To its credit, the current provincial government recently adopted a new math curriculum that restores many of the academic basics that had previously been lost. However, the discovery math approach still has a lot of support among school board administrators, math education consultants and education professors, which is why there’s strong resistance to the province’s new curriculum.

The province should also expand the educational choices available to parents. Alberta is the only province that allows charter schools (public schools that operate outside the authority of local school boards) to be created, although a recently lifted cap of 15 schools limited the overall impact of these schools on the education system.

Interestingly, some of the most successful charter schools (such as Foundations for the Future Charter Academy in Calgary) strongly emphasize the academic basics. By expanding the range of available educational options, the province could help empower more parents to choose a school that best fits the needs of their children. This healthy competition is a good way to encourage schools to provide the best education possible.

Thus, while it’s easy to blame COVID for the latest round of poor test scores, it would be a mistake to ignore the much deeper issues that must be addressed. The Alberta government must take decisive action to ensure the province’s downward academic trend is halted and reversed.

Regular standardized testing, a knowledge-rich curriculum, back-to-the-basics math instruction, and plenty of choice for parents—these are the kinds of things our education system needs. Enough hiding behind COVID. Let’s get serious about tackling the issues that really matter in our schools.

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