Ontario math scores not adding up Half of Grade 9 applied math students below provincial standard, EQAO says

Students from across the province continue to make steady gains in reading and writing, but the latest batch of standardized test results released Monday by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) suggests improvements in math aren't keeping pace. Fewer than half of Grade 9 students enrolled in applied math are meeting the provincial standard.

In Grades 3 and 6, the percentage of students meeting the standard has been stable over the past five years, at 69 per cent and 58 per cent, respectively.

The EQAO says the math results clearly point to an area that Ontario's publicly-funded schools must focus on.

"This should be a call to action for the education system as a whole," said Brian Desbiens, chair of the board of directors.

Using the example of literacy, Desbiens said gains could be made in the school system through focused attention and intervention once a trouble spot had been identified. "This attention must now be applied to improving math achievement," he said.

By tracking the progress of students in math through three provincial tests - the group of students who advanced from Grade 3 in 2005 to Grade 6 in 2008 to Grade 9 in 2011 - a pattern appears to emerge.

Students who met the provincial standard early in their schooling are most likely to continue meeting the standard, while students who didn't before still don't.

Of the students who did not meet the provincial standard in Grades 3 and 6, 51 per cent did not meet in again in Grade 9 academic math and 71 per cent did not meet it in the applied course.

However, the majority of students whose math problems were identified early and received support were able to meet the standard in Grade 6 and again in Grade 9, after failing to meet it in Grade 3.

That's encouraging, says Douglas McDougall, an expert in mathematics education at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute of Studies in Education.

"With focused attention, we know we can make a difference and increase scores," he said.

McDougall has been working with several Toronto-area school boards for the past few years to help improve poor results in Grade 9 applied math.

He recommends creating math-improvement teams in schools and holding workshops for teachers on ways to better their lesson plans and learning environments.

In Toronto, where the country's largest school board has made improving math scores a central focus, an online wiki has been created to allow teachers to share successful strategies and lessons

Seeing improved results also requires year-round commitment and can't just be something teachers do in the weeks leading up to the EQAO test, McDougall said.

Many Ontario school boards still spend more on literacy-related professional development, while school systems in Asia and Europe put a heavier emphasis on math. "For them, that's what gets you the job," McDougall said.

Liberal MPP Yasir Naqvi said it was a good sign that students identified early showed improvement in their math skills, but that more must be done to address the students who aren't being identified. "That's where we need to focus," he said.

Naqvi said the province must ensure that teachers and school boards had the necessary resources to focus on improving math skill, but he couldn't identify a specific program or funding envelope that would do just that and wouldn't say if it was time to reconsider the way math was taught.

"Politicians aren't the ones who create curriculum," he said.

Elizabeth Witmer, a Tory MPP and her party's education critic, said Ontario was not seeing the kind of improvements in math performance that the McGuinty government had promised.

If elected, the Progressive Conservatives would reinstate the fall report card for elementary students so parents know as early as possible how their children are doing in school, the former education minister said. The Tories would also review what's currently happening in the classroom, she said.

Witmer said science and innovation were key to Ontario's future and finding a job would require a strong foundation in math.

There is one bright spot in the numbers: Most students in the academic stream of Grade 9 math - 83 per cent - now meet or exceed the provincial standard, up from 71 per cent five years ago.

Meanwhile, there were modest gains in Grade 6 reading and writing results. The percentage of students meeting or exceeding the provincial standard in reading is 74, up from 64 in 2007, while the percentage of students meeting or exceeding the writing standard is 73, up from 61 in 2007.

65 per cent of students in Grade 3 now meet or exceed the provincial standard for reading, up slightly from 62 per cent five years ago, while 74 per cent of Grade 3 students are meeting the province's standard for writing, up from 64 per cent.

Established in 1996, the EQAO uses four levels of student achievement to report its results to the province. The Ministry of Education has established level 3 as the provincial standard. That represents the range from B minus to B plus for elementary students and the range from 70 to 79 per cent for high school students.

School and individual student results will be released in September.