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Ontario’s Education Minister will deploy math teams to underperforming school boards, screen some of the youngest learners for reading difficulties, and start issuing parents another round of up to $250 per child to pay for tutoring, amid stagnating or falling standardized test scores.

Results released on Thursday by Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) showed that fewer than half of Grade 6 students – 47 per cent – met the provincial standard in math in the last academic year. In 2018-2019, the last annual test before the pandemic hit, half of Grade 6 students met the provincial benchmark.

In Grade 3 in the last academic year, 59 per cent of students met the provincial standard in math, down a percentage point from three years prior. As well, fewer students in this grade met the standards in reading and writing compared with results from 2018-2019.

The provincial standard is equivalent to a B grade.

The EQAO, an arm’s length agency of the Ontario government, tests students in reading, math and writing every year. The tests were temporarily cancelled during the first two years of the pandemic.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said students were behind academically after more than two “difficult” years of pandemic-related learning disruptions.

“While this is a global challenge, Ontario has a plan, a plan to help kids catch up on their studies,” Mr. Lecce said at a news conference in Toronto.

Some observers have also noted that the Ontario government kept schools closed to in-person learning more than any other jurisdiction in the country, which was likely a key factor in the stagnating and declining test scores.

“Evidence strongly suggests longer closures lead to more severe and unequal learning impacts,” said Kelly Gallagher-Mackay, a researcher and associate professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.

“This government chose to keep schools closed much longer than anywhere else in Canada, which likely contributed to reduced learning and well-being.”

On Thursday, Mr. Lecce said his government would deploy “math action teams” to school boards where students are underperforming. The team would train school staff and develop intervention programs for classes. The teams would be in addition to math coaches who are already in place in many boards to work with elementary teachers.

Mr. Lecce also said children from their second year of kindergarten through to Grade 2 would be screened by their classroom teachers on their reading performance. Teachers would do up to two diagnostic assessments a year.

The government said details about the assessment tool will be announced shortly.

As part of the government’s plan to help students catch-up, Mr. Lecce said parents can apply for about $200 a child for the cost of tutoring supports or technology, and $250 a child for families with special needs children. It’s the fourth round of direct payments to parents.

Mr. Lecce acknowledged that there was no means by which to track how the money would be used by families. Further, in most circumstances, $200 would only guarantee roughly two hours of tutoring for a child.

The EQAO results showed that students barely made any progress since the last round of tests, even as the Progressive Conservative government campaigned in 2018 on rewriting the elementary math curriculum and, in particular, turning around math scores.

The government introduced a new math curriculum in September, 2020, saying it was focused on students learning basic arithmetic, rather than what it described as “discovery math” delivered by the previous Liberal government, which emphasizes expressing ideas in a variety of ways.

The EQAO results on Thursday also showed that fewer Grade 3 students met the provincial standard in reading and writing. In reading, 73 per cent met the standard in the 2021-2022 school year, down from 77 per cent in 2018-2019.

About 65 per cent of Grade 3 students met the provincial standard in writing, down from 72 per cent three years prior.

In Grade 6, literacy results were fairly consistent over the same time period.

More than 600,000 students across the province wrote the tests. The latest round of EQAO testing was the first to be done online, and many students experienced technical difficulties when completing the tests.

Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said it was irresponsible of the government to test students during a pandemic, while also introducing a new curriculum and a new online assessment platform.

“With the tumultuous implementation of EQAO, the results can only be interpreted as unreliable and invalid – a waste of time and money,” Ms. Brown said in a statement, adding that money should be directed to lower class sizes and more supports for students.