N.L. students falling behind in mathematics

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the St. John's Telegram, May 10, 2021
N.L. students falling behind in mathematics

Despite the very real challenges of the pandemic, school performance remains fundamental to our children’s future and indeed the future of our communities.

Student progress is measured in various ways. While no single approach paints a complete picture, a variety of assessments illustrate where our students stand. Student performance in the key subject of math, in particular, is worth a closer look. Unfortunately, in Newfoundland and Labrador, the results for students are poor and have been worsening over time.

For example, based on results from the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA), the gold standard of student testing, since 2003 students in the province have shown declining performance in four out of the last five PISA assessments, which are conducted every three years.

In 2003, Newfoundland and Labrador’s average student score was 517, above the international standardized average of 500. But in the most recent 2018 assessment, the province’s score dropped to 488, well below the international average.

Nationally, in 2003 the province’s students scored 15 points below the Canadian average. In 2018, the province’s score dropped further, to 24 points below the Canadian average.

Newfoundland and Labrador is also underperforming relative to other provinces in Atlantic Canada. With a -5.6 per cent decline in PISA scores since 2003, student performance in the province has declined more than Nova Scotia (-4.1 per cent), New Brunswick (-3.9 per cent) and Prince Edward Island (-2.6 per cent). While other non-PISA testing methods show improvement in the province, all assessments reviewed in a new study show Newfoundland and Labrador’s students behind the majority of other provinces, with flat or declining performance over time.

These results give rise to some important considerations for policymakers. First, the availability of these data in the first place underscores the importance of school testing. A first step in improving the province’s student performance is to take stock of where students rank presently, and without good testing there’s no objective method to do so.

When considering options for improvement, it’s also worth nothing some of the differences between provincial education systems. Other provinces, for example, have higher rates of independent school attendance. In fact, at a time when more parents are choosing independent schools across the country, Newfoundland and Labrador has the second-lowest percentage of independent school attendance in Canada, at just 1.5 per cent.

This stands in stark contrast to provinces such as Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, which all have much higher rates of independent school attendance while significantly outperforming Newfoundland and Labrador’s students on standardized testing. Research demonstrates that meaningful school choice can improve the performance of government-run schools. Opening the door for more independent schools in the province is one promising avenue for the future.

Another option worthy of closer examination is curriculum reform. Ontario, for example, is implementing a new “back to basics” math curriculum, which focuses on development fundamentals. The results are yet to be seen, but this is one experiment worth watching.

Ensuring a high-level of education in Newfoundland and Labrador is of course a top priority for parents, and a priority the Furey government often espouses. In the crucial subject of math, the data indicate that the province’s students have fallen behind their peers in the rest of Canada, and risk falling further behind. Change may be difficult and take time, but students in the province deserve no less.

Subscribe to the Fraser Institute

Get the latest news from the Fraser Institute on the latest research studies, news and events.