Beyond the Headlines

Math is hard work

Posted: Feb 14, 2012 11:00 AM ET Last Updated: Feb 14, 2012 11:00 AM ET

Even at the best of times grade 12 math is a tough course.

So this past semester, when through a series of circumstances, the grade 12 math students at Shelburne Regional High had seven different teachers, the results were predictable. All but one student failed the provincial exam.

As frustrated as those students and parents are, the reality is that students in the Tri-County who have full time math teachers aren't doing much better. Last year only 34% of the students in that district passed the provincial grade 12 math exam. In 2008/09 only 29% passed, 35% passed in 2007/08 and the pass rate was a dismal 21% in 2006/07.

To be fair, the rest of the province's boards aren't doing much better. Last year all but two boards had a pass rate of less than 50%. (See all the results here).

mathresults.JPG
For years people have blamed everything from the curriculum, to the teachers, to the semester system.

But through all the hand-wringing one district seems to have figured out a way to make it work.

After years of suffering through poor results, last year 66% of the students in the Chignecto-Central Regional School Board passed the grade 12 math exam. While 66% may not sound like something to brag about - compared to what's happening everywhere else in the province - it's downright dazzling.

Gary Clarke, the board's superintendent (who is naturally thrilled) says it took a lot of hard work to finally get those math scores moving in the right direction. But in our conversation a couple of things stood out.

First, they made improving math scores a board-wide priority. They set goals with defined targets and then worked with their math teachers to give them the training and professional development to bring best practices into each classroom.

But probably the most important step was to introduce centralized exams for all grade 10 students in the district. Those tests are given twice a year. Then staff pore over the results to see what concepts the kids just aren't getting. That key information is then shared with all the high school math teachers, so they can not only revise how those concepts are being taught in grade 10, they can reinforce and build on them in grades 11 and 12.

In September, 2010 - after a year in which only 48% of the board's students passed the provincial math exam - Clarke sat down to write the board's strategic plan. He set a target of a 60% pass rate by June, 2013. They surpassed that target last year. Their 66% pass rate was 12% higher than Halifax, and 32% higher than the Tri-County board.

Clarke is confident this wasn't an anomaly. He believes the board can maintain and even build on those results.

Other boards are taking notice.

This year, for the first time, the Tri-County board is giving its grade 10 students district wide math exams. They will use the data in "brainstorming" sessions with teachers to revise how they teach the provincial curriculum.

Let's hope it all adds up to improved math scores. Our students deserve nothing less.

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About the Author

Brian DuBreuil is a veteran journalist with CBC News. He has won two Gemini awards for his work, and neither involved dancing or singing on a reality show.

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