Ditch the calculators to improve mathematics scores, say tutors

In the 2017-2018 school year, 2,400 Grade 9 Calgary Board of Education students failed the provincial standardized math test.

According to numbers provided by the CBE 2,400 Grade 9 students failed the standardized math test

Experts say leaving calculators out of the classroom might be the best way to help boost math scores.

As thousands of Calgary students struggle with math, tutors suggest leaving calculators out of the classroom.

In the 2017-2018 school year, 2,400 Grade 9 Calgary Board of Education students failed the provincial standardized math test.

After standardized tests showed slumping math grades in Calgary, tutors say the frequent use of calculators in the classroom is an "extreme weakness" that prevents students from understanding math and sets them up for big challenges later in school.

Passing grade set at 42 per cent

The latest results from the Provincial Achievement Test show slightly more than a third of Grade 9 students with the Calgary Board of Education who took the test failed.

The province's standard for passing the test wasn't the common benchmark of 50 per cent. Instead, the passing grade was 42 per cent or higher — and more than 2,400 students in Calgary's public schools failed to hit that mark.

No calculators allowed

As soon as I saw that last year when they were proposing to put a non-calculator component on a paper, panic rose through the parent community.- Michael Stang

The big change in the Grade 9 math test — which school board officials say helped fuel poor test results — was that students had to write a portion of the exam without a calculator for the first time.

"As soon as I saw that last year when they were proposing to put a non-calculator component on a paper, panic rose through the parent community," said Michael Stang, owner of Mathnasium, a private tutoring service.

The slide in scores was predictable, Stang said, because classrooms too often rely on calculators, which means students struggle to understand the concepts without working them out on paper.

Results were 'disappointing'

"This is an extreme weakness," said Stang.

Trina Hurdman, chair of the Calgary Board of Education, said the Grade 9 results were "disappointing," but the school board is trying to help students with a renewed focus on math education. She said students are now spending 25 per cent more time practising math, while math coaches have been deployed in dozens of schools where the need is greatest.

Hurdman said it would be a mistake for people to think the standard for acceptable achievement in these tests is too low. She said the standard, set by the province, is consistent every year.

Students not taught to think independently 

According to Alberta Education, students who meet the acceptable standard "have demonstrated a proficient level of understanding and have learned the concepts they are expected to learn." The bar for acceptable achievement in Grade 6 science in the past five years has also consistently fallen below 50 per cent.

Alex Azarnousch, who owns a tutoring service in Calgary, said he teaches all subjects but most of his students are looking for help in math. He said they consistently struggle without a calculator.

"Regardless of what grade the student is in, the use of the calculator is the No. 1 problem because kids at the young age are not taught to think logically and independently," he said.

Calculators have a place in the classroom

Azarnousch, like Stang, said his tutoring centre relies on a pen and paper to help students solve math problems.

Gina Cherkowski, a math educator and researcher, said calculators have a place in the classroom but shouldn't be relied on "all the time." She said teachers need to be flexible to help students understand math in their own way. She said math teachers are often "generalists" without specialized training.

While an unusually high number of Grade 9 students in Calgary failed the math test in the last academic year, scores in earlier years were fairly consistent. In the previous four years, 26 per cent to 28 per cent of public school students who took the test in Calgary fell short of the acceptable standard.

Standards haven't changed

Again, in each of those years, the standard was a score of less than 50 per cent.

Similarly, roughly one in five Grade 6 students who took the test failed to meet the acceptable standard in each of the past five years.

Still, the school board said students performed well in other subjects. It said students recorded their best-ever results in Grades 6 and 9 science, along with Grade 6 social studies. On Grade 12 diploma exams, students in advanced math classes got their highest marks on record in the most recent academic year.

'Silver bullet' sought 

Hurdman said Grade 6 math scores fell a year earlier when the non-calculator portion was introduced in the exam, but results improved in the most recent test.

School board officials are hoping for a similar boost when Grade 9 students take the test next time around.

"Math has been a topic of concern internationally, nationally, provincially," Hurdman said. "Everyone would want to find a silver bullet in math, but so far no one has found one."

Hurdman said it's up to the professionals — the teachers — to decide the appropriate use of calculators in the classrooms. 


  • A previous version of this story said Alex Azarnousch is a math tutor. In fact, he owns a tutoring service.
    Oct 29, 2018 11:33 AM MT


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