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Math scores drop for elementary students

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TORONTO—Math test scores among public elementary students in Ontario have been decreasing over the last five years, indicating government efforts to reverse the trend have not worked, according to the agency administering standardized assessments in the province.

In its annual report released yesterday, the Education Quality and Accountability Office said the strategy implemented by the previous Liberal regime appears to have failed.

“Math and literacy are the foundation for the knowledge and skills that students will use in their careers and in society,” EQAO chair Dave Cooke said in a statement.

“The continued decline in elementary-level math scores suggests that Ontario's Renewed Math Strategy is not having the intended impact.”

The EQAO data shows just 49 percent of Grade 6 students met the provincial math standard last school year, down from 54 percent in 2013-14.

Among Grade 3 students, the EQAO said 61 percent met the provincial standard in 2017-18, down from 67 percent in 2013-14.

Meanwhile, 45 percent of Grade 9 students enrolled in the applied math course met the standard while that figure stood at 84 percent for those in the academic math course.

Academic courses focus more on abstract applications of concepts while applied courses focus on the practical.

Education minister Lisa Thompson called the math results “unacceptable” and said the new Progressive Conservative government has refocused $55 million of current math resources to help with teacher training in the subject area.

The ministry has released a new teachers' guide and parent fact sheet to help educators and parents focus on “traditional formulas and memorization techniques,” she added.

“The previous government used our children's classrooms to test a failed experimental curriculum called 'Discovery Math,'” Thompson said in a statement.

“Our government has already made changes to bring back proven methods of teaching that work.”

Premier Doug Ford had promised during the spring election to scrap the “discovery math” curriculum and return to basics.

Discovery math does not focus on memorization of math problems that traditionally were taught in the classroom.

Instead, it encourages students to engage in problem-solving that grounds math in its application.

Mary Reid, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, said if the Progressive Conservative government changes the current math curriculum, it should retain at least some of discovery math's problem-solving and conceptual lessons.

Memorization in math class only will get a student so far; children must know the concepts behind mathematics, she added.

“We really need to bring the pendulum back to the middle and ensure that we have a balanced approach so that our students have strong computation fluency and good problem-solving,” Reid argued.

“We can't throw out the problem-solving because that is, in essence, what mathematicians do.”

In response to declining test scores in 2016, the previous Liberal government announced a new $60-million math strategy.

The three-year plan put an average of 60 minutes per day of “protected math learning time” in the curriculum for Grades 1 through 8.

It also designated up to three “math lead teachers” in all elementary schools and a dedicated math professional development day.

A year later, when math scores continued to slide, former premier Kathleen Wynne announced the province would look at overhauling its math education program.

Meanwhile, the latest EQAO data also shows high school literacy test scores have declined since 2014, leading the testing agency to say that data also was troubling.

Of the more than 122,000 high school students who took the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, 79 percent were successful.

But that figure was a decrease from 83 percent in 2014.

“EQAO has been highlighting the decline in OSSLT achievement and the broadening gap between secondary-level students in the applied and academic courses for several years,” EQAO CEO Norah Marsh said.

“This trend is cause for concern and should be further examined,” she added.

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