Alberta students and teachers are getting a helping hand to boost their math skills with changes to the provincial curriculum announced Tuesday by Education Minister David Eggen.

Alberta Education is putting $2 million toward the new initiatives.

Starting in 2018, the government will bring back the written portion of high school diploma math exams. It was removed in 2010 by the previous Conservative government.

As well, Grade 9 students won't be able to use a calculator on a portion of the math provincial achievement test.

"We need to reinforce the vigour and the rigour that has provided us some degree of success, and that equips kids in the broadest way for the skills they can carry with them for the rest of their lives," Eggen said at Ardrossan Junior Senior High.

Tim Cusack, the assistant superintendent of Learning Services Innovation with Edmonton Catholic Schools, welcomes back the written component of the diploma exams, which currently consist of multiple choice and numeric answers.

He said getting students to write out their responses makes learning 'visible' and gives teachers a "rich opportunity" to understand how a student is progressing.

"When they write out a process, we can really see their thoughts come alive on paper," Cusack explained.

He also approves of taking calculators away from students during tests. 

"In today's age, we rely on our technology," he said. "I think having a focus on mental math and mental calculations is important."

Alberta teens rank 8th of 72 jurisdictions in math

Eggen announced the initiatives as the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment were released, showing that Alberta students ranked first in reading and second in science but the equivalent of eighth out of 72 jurisdictions in mathematics.

Eggen said he sees the PISA results as part of a downward trend in mathematics scores.

But Mark Ramsankar, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, said the government is putting too much focus on the international test.

"We're reacting to exams that really don't tell us anything that we don't already know," Ramsankar said, adding that he believes Alberta has a first-class education system and that the eighth-place ranking is still positive.

The PISA tests reading, mathematical and scientific literacy of 15-year-old students in all 35 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and in 37 partner countries and economies.

Help for teachers

Changes introduced by Eggen on Tuesday include offering current and pre-service teachers up to $2,000 to help cover tuition for post-secondary courses, something Ramsankar applauds.

"My hope is that it's because we're looking at the needs of Alberta children rather than a reaction to where we stand internationally," he said.

"We are on top of the world by and large."

Eggen said the changes will go hand in hand with an ongoing curriculum review. Results of that review are due out in the spring.

He said the government has been evaluating the curriculum since last year, taking recommendations from a math curriculum review working group,led by John O'Connor with MacEwan University's department of mathematics and statistics.