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Education Schools failing to lift math skills, test scores show

Items on or in desks at the Roberta Bondar Public School in Brampton, Ontario.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Students who fail to meet provincial standards early in their schooling are more likely to have trouble in later grades, according to Ontario's testing agency that released math results for high school students Wednesday.

Of the students who did not meet the provincial standard in Grades 3 and 6 in math, 49 per cent failed to meet it in Grade 9 academic math courses and 70 per cent did not keep up in the applied math course, data provided by the Education Quality and Accountability Office shows.

This raises concerns about the path of elementary students after recent results from EQAO revealed that students in Grades 3 and 6 were losing ground in the subject for the fifth year in a row. The number of Grade 3 and 6 students meeting the provincial standard in math fell in 2012-13, despite promising gains in reading and writing skills. The data from the EQAO showed that 57 per cent of Grade 6 students met the provincial standard in math in the 2012-13 school year, down from 63 per cent who met the standard in 2008-09. Similar results were posted at the Grade 3 level, where 67 per cent of students met the standard in the last academic year, a drop from 70 per cent meeting the standard in 2008-09.

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"There's no mystery who the students not meeting the provincial standard in secondary school are. We've been tracking their difficulties since elementary school. While the school system has been able to change the path of many students, there are still far too many whose struggles are just compounding year after year," Bruce Rodrigues, chief executive officer of EQAO, said in a statement.

Math scores have been trending down across the country. While Canada continues to outperform other countries, a 2009 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found math performance worsened in six provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia.

Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals has suggested teacher training in math needs improvement. Critics, however, contend that the math curriculum rather than teacher education is to blame for lower scores because it places more emphasis on real-world concepts and applications rather than building in the basics. Ms. Sandals has acknowledged that there is more to do to support students in math.

Christopher Usih, executive superintendent of student success at the Toronto District School Board, said Canada's largest board has been very focused on improving math skills.

The EQAO high school scores, released Wednesday, showed that 83 per cent of Grade 9 TDSB students in the academic stream met the provincial standard in math, up from 75 per cent in 2008-09. In the applied math stream, which is usually taught to those headed into the workplace, 32 per cent met the provincial standard, up from 23 per cent in 2008-09.

Provincially, 84 per cent of students in the academic stream met the provincial standard in math in 2012-13, up from 77 per cent in 2008-09, and 44 per cent met in the applied stream met the standard, up from 38 per cent in 2008-09.

Mr. Usih acknowledged that more needs to be done to help students in the applied stream and those in the elementary school years. Besides extra help after school and math tutorials, teachers visit classrooms to watch lessons being taught, he said.

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"We want to minimize the gaps early on," Mr. Usih said. "We are taking the position that we don't want to wait till Grade 9. We have been very pro-active in our approach."

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