Math scores falling across Canada, particularly in the Prairies

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Appeared in the National Post, April 10, 2021
Math scores falling across Canada, particularly in the Prairies

How are our kids doing in math? An odd question as COVID-19 school disruptions drag on, but we must still pay attention to such important matters. Academic achievement is cumulative—learning builds on and from earlier learning. We know students lose a little ground when school is out for the summer. COVID disruptions have taken a heavier toll. If math achievement was declining before the pandemic, then our schools face an even more difficult challenge moving forward.

Unfortunately, as noted in a new Fraser Institute study, average math scores in Canada have been declining for years, well before COVID—and not just the Canadian average, but in all provinces. Given the strategic importance of math literacy in digital economies, this is disturbing news. To avoid falling further behind other countries, and to regain lost ground due to COVID, we must improve math teaching and learning.

Indeed, the data tell the tale.

For example, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered to Tenth Grade students around the world, Canada’s average math scores have declined significantly from 2003 and 2018 (the latest year of PISA data). While Canada consistently scored above the OECD average over this period, we steadily lost ground. Canada and Japan were statistically tied from 2003 to 2009 before Canada fell behind. Canada continues to outscore the United States, but the gap is narrowing.

Within Canada, Quebec outperformed all other provinces, with Saskatchewan and Manitoba performing the worst. The really bad news is that PISA math scores declined in all provinces, spectacularly so in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Quebec’s initially high PISA scores and relatively shallow decline has kept it among the top-scoring jurisdictions worldwide. All other provinces have dropped down the world rankings—Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia scored significantly below Korea, Estonia and the Netherlands in the 2018 results, Nova Scotia below Sweden, Saskatchewan and Manitoba below Australia.

There is some good news, however. According to the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, which administers standardized tests to Eighth Graders in each province every three years, average math scores have increased in all provinces from 2010 to 2016 (except Ontario, where scores have been flat). Like the PISA results, Quebec had the highest average scores among Eighth Graders, Saskatchewan and Manitoba the lowest.

Modern school systems are like supertankers; they don’t turn on a dime. It will take time and effort to reverse these negative trends. Dismayed by declines in its internal Third and Sixth Grade math scores, Ontario recently adopted a new “Back to Basics” math curriculum and new teaching strategies. Again, results will take time, in Ontario and across Canada, particularly in COVID’s wake. Perhaps it’s time for a national response, or at least a priority effort by a coalition of larger provinces.

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