No surprise in Manitoba students' poor math showings

Manitoba parents and students received disheartening news on Tuesday when the PCAP results revealed that Manitoba students scored worst nationally in science, reading and math.
Manitoba's struggling students are not receiving the help they need and few students are excelling, says Anna Stokke.

Manitoba parents and students received disheartening news on Tuesday when the PCAP results revealed that Manitoba students scored worst nationally in science, reading and math.

PCAP is a national test written by a sample of Grade 8 students across Canada every three years.

In Manitoba, 15 per cent of students performed at the lowest test level in science – the highest percentage in Canada. At the other end of the spectrum, only four per cent performed at the highest level – the lowest percentage in Canada.

Our struggling students are not receiving the help they need and few students are excelling. 

The PCAP results should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Manitoba’s progress on other large-scale assessments.

The 2012 PISA test which tested math performance of 15 year olds, also resulted in a poor showing for Manitoba and in the previous round of PCAP Manitoba students came in second last in Canada, just above Prince Edward Island.

All three assessments have revealed the same thing: more of our students are failing to meet expectations and fewer are excelling than in other provinces.

Even more troubling than the scores is the response of Paul Olson, Manitoba Teachers’ Society president. He blames the poor scores on students living in poverty.

There are several problems with this argument.

  • First, note that Manitoba students were middle of the pack in in the 2006 PISA assessment so we have seen a decline in scores in Manitoba. Unless Olson can prove that the proportion of students from low socioeconomic families has significantly changed in the last few assessment cycles, he cannot claim that socioeconomic issues are the cause of the poor showing for Manitoba students.​
  • Second, Olson implies that nothing can be done because of the socioeconomic situations faced by Manitoba students. That is not true. A recent report from the C.D. Howe Institute discusses the “social gradient”, which was used by PISA experts to measure how successful jurisdictions were at offsetting socioeconomic differences of students’ families. Saskatchewan, for instance, is quite successful at offsetting socioeconomic disadvantages. Manitoba is not.
  • In addition to this, an influx of immigrants was also suggested as cause for the low scores. Alberta saw a recent increase in immigrant population and their scores are not nearly as bad as Manitoba’s. Only six per cent of Alberta students performed in the lowest level and 12 per cent in the highest. Moreover, in my experience, students from other countries often come to Canada with better math skills than students who have been educated in Manitoba schools.

The C.D. Howe Report also found that provinces that collect data on student performance and publish the data by school showed better student performance on PISA.

This is also a finding in a report by the OECD on autonomy and accountability, which found that student performance is stronger in countries where schools post achievement data publicly.

Interestingly, PEI introduced standardized testing in Grades 3, 6 and 9 over the last five years. In this round of PCAP, PEI made a remarkable recovery from their 2010 last place finish and jumped ahead of several other provinces.

Manitoba is quite secretive about provincial data on student achievement and rigorous standardized testing has not happened here since the late 1990s.

I understand that Olson wants to defend teachers for fear that the blame will fall on their shoulders. The fact that Manitoba has more students that struggle academically than any other province must make classroom teaching in Manitoba very difficult.

However, to blame the situation on students who live in poverty or on immigrants is irresponsible. Teachers would be better served if Olson would look for concrete solutions to improve the education system.

Dismissing the work of others who are making genuine attempts to improve the situation for Manitoba students as “nine different kinds of silly” will do nothing to help the children in Manitoba get a better education.

Here is a list of recommendations that apparently Olson will regard as nine pieces of silly:

  1. Rewrite the math curriculum.
  2. Improve teacher training in math.
  3. Minimize educational fads, like discovery-based learning.
  4. Make practice and mastery a priority.
  5. Ensure that teachers have access to good textbooks, such as JUMP Math and Saxon Math, to use in the classroom.
  6. Focus on teaching the basics and fundamentals as early as possible.
  7. Make sure struggling students get the help they need before promoting them to the next grade.
  8. Provide enrichment programs for strong students.
  9. Reintroduce provincial standardized tests. 

Anna Stokke is an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Winnipeg and a co-founder of WISE Math.