A new non-calculator portion of a provincial math test shows Grade 6 students in Alberta struggle to do arithmetic with only a pencil and paper.

Almost 35 per cent of students who wrote the Provincial Achievement Test in June failed to meet the "acceptable standard" on the section that requires questions to be answered without a calculator.

Students had 15 minutes to complete the section. The province lists some sample questions as: What is 78.03 divided by 9? What is 7 minus 4.09?

But the math scores improved significantly when achievement tests are considered as a whole. Almost 77 per cent of students met the "acceptable" standard, when looking at both the calculator and non-calculator portions of the exam.

That number is at a five year-low; in the 2012-2013 school year, almost 80 per cent of students met that standard.

Concerns over 'new' math

The province's math curriculum has been in the political spotlight for years

In 2014, about 10,000 people signed a petition for changes to the math curriculum, which culminated in a protest of hundreds at the legislature. Parents said they wanted a "back-to-basics" approach to math instruction.

They argued the "discovery-based" system adopted at schools, where students are presented with several problem solving methods for simple arithmetic questions, was leaving students unprepared.

The approach puts less emphasis on rote memorization, such as multiplication tables.

At private tutoring centres such as Oxford Learning, parents regularly come in seeking that instruction.

"Almost every single parent who brings their child here for a math program is looking for them to learn math facts, multiplication and division," said Janet Sobocan, who directs an Oxford Learning location on the city's south side.

"Because when they reach Grade 6 and they're doing algebra and things like that, the fact they don't know multiplication and division slows them down. So especially in the testing context they're not quick enough."

Sobocan said students need help with "math facts," word problems, and parents want them to have an "edge" as they head into high school and prepare for exams that will dictate whether they are accepted at university.

The non-calculator portion of the exam was announced by Eggen last year.

"We've been looking for ways to improve numeracy skills in students in general," he said at the time.

"And certainly being able to do some mathematics operations, having some of those basic skills in place, I think is quite useful."

Education Minister David Eggen

Education Minister David Eggen speaks to reporters in September 2017. (Rebecca Kelly/CBC)

Not one, or the other

At Elk Island Public Schools, about 84 per cent of Grade 6 students met the "acceptable standard" on the overall PAT math exam, and about 75 per cent of students passed the non-calculator portion.

The district has specifically focused on its math curriculum and has put renewed focus on "foundational skills" over the last several years, said Sandra Stoddard, the associate superintendent.

That has included early assessments to identify children struggling with math and a new report card that includes an assessment on foundational math skills. Parents are specifically told what their children should know at each level.

Stoddard said the district's math consultants still believe in teaching "higher level thinking in math and problem solving."

"But they've recognized the foundational skills, too. That it's not an either, or. They've emphasized the importance of mental math and paper-pencil computations. Focusing on both has helped our kids be successful"

The Ministry of Education noted that Grade 9 math and social studies scores have increased over the last five years. About 73 per cent of students in Grade 12 who wrote the Math 30-1 diploma exam passed.

Math scores have been steady at the junior high school and high school levels.