In December, The Program for International Students Assessment (PISA) released the latest international student test results. Unfortunately, the good standing of Canadian education (fourth in reading and top ten in math and science out of 70 countries) was buried by the news that Canadian students’ ability in math is on the decline. This 2 per cent decrease in PISA scores, from 527 to 518, sent pundits, parents and politicians into a frenzy.
After more than a month of popular debate and discussion – and with a potential provincial election looming – Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals unveiled a math plan to “...battle the province’s poor test scores…”. The $4-million initiative placed the responsibility for addressing Ontario students’ declining math scores on teachers and parents. Meanwhile, the minister defended the math curriculum and refused to consider a ‘shake up’ of teaching methods.
Most of the recent discussion on how we’re teaching math in Canadian schools has focussed on who is to blame for the problem and how best to fix it. Almost no one has contemplated whether using international test scores as the basis for education policy decisions is a sound strategy. Canadians have taken PISA’s scores and rankings at face value without ever considering if they’re correct.
The 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) indicated that, contrary to the 2012 PISA results, “Ontario students have shown significant improvement” in math and more than 70 per cent of Ontario students tested at or above the benchmark. Why are these findings at odds with the PISA findings only a year later?
There is a growing body of academic evidence that PISA test scores aren’t accurate reflections of student learning. Cambridge statistician David Spiegelhalter expressed “...fairly serious concerns…” about PISA’s 2012 testing methods and data analysis, while University of Copenhagen’s Svend Kreiner calls PISA results “useless”. Prof. Kreiner also demonstrated that in PISA’s 2006 test, Canada could have placed “anywhere from second place to 25th” using PISA’s methodology. Other prominent academic statisticians call PISA results and methods “utterly wrong” and “problematic”.
In response PISA admits that a “large variation in single ranking positions is likely” owing to “the uncertainty that results from sample data”. Prof. Spiegelhalter goes further, stating “It's unwise for countries to base education policy on their Pisa results”. To do so is “to underestimate the random error associated with the Pisa results”, he says.
In any case, high international test scores may be meaningless. Keith Baker, a U.S. Department of Education researcher, found no correlation between international test scores and prosperity. Education levels help fuel growth up to point, but once a country achieves an optimal level of education, traits like creativity, perseverance and ambition become more important. Mr. Baker believes that constantly pursuing higher test scores is bad education policy, as it reduces the focus in schools on developing those other important traits.
While it’s questionable whether we have a “crisis” in Canadian math education the discussion and debate around learning math is paving the way forward. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s educators and parents heatedly discussed the merits of whole language and phonics approaches in teaching reading. Out of those discussions came balanced literacy programs which use the best of both approaches and have led to our current strength in teaching reading.
The opposite poles of “discovery math” and “back to basics” are theoretical rather than practical. I don’t use one method exclusively in my grade 5 classroom, nor do I know any teacher that does. We’re using inquiry methods more, but we also use more traditional methods when they're effective.
The curriculum requires my students to mentally add, subtract, multiply and divide and it’s a skill we develop daily. Students also work on open-ended problems and, in doing so, foster higher-order thinking skills. These two approaches aren’t an “either/or”, but rather an opportunity to add new strategies to what we know already works.
The drawback of deciding education policy through public debate is that positions become polarized and the nuance of understanding required to enhance student learning in the classroom is lost. Every student is unique and no single approach will be effective for every student. Similarly, student learning can’t be effectively distilled down and represented by a test score.
International tests, such as PISA provide impartial feedback that encourages us to reflect and consider ways to improve our education system. They are not, however, the definitive word, and should not be used as the basis for policy decisions. The collective future of our students is much too important for that.
Andrew Campbell is a teacher at Major Ballachey Public School in Brantford, Ont., an educator for over 20 years and the father of three sons.