The failure of a growing proportion of Canadian students to understand even the most basic math concepts is strengthening the push from some educators to adopt national standards, improve teacher training and return to teaching basic equations.
Results from the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reveal that almost all provinces have seen large increases over the last decade in the percentage of 15-year-old students failing the math test.
"Canada will continue its decline in all international rankings in the education field until it develops and implements a national strategy – including standards and shared learning outcomes for all age and grade levels," said Paul Cappon, former president of Canadian Council on Learning and a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa's graduate school of international and public policy. "Every federal state worthy of the name has ongoing discussions and joint planning between federal government and the state or provincial governments collectively. Canada has nothing of the kind."
The OECD report noted that the top performers had more exposure to formal mathematics, algebra and geometry than the word problems used in "discovery learning," which advocates that children can learn math more effectively when they are given opportunities to investigate ideas through problem-solving and open-ended investigations.
Quebec was the only province in the international PISA results where the proportion of students performing poorly did not increase; it was also the top scorer nationally.
Robert Craigen, an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Manitoba, said he believes Quebec had a higher ranking because it places more emphasis on traditional drills than other parts of the country. Teachers in that province receive specialized training in math and some education ministers elsewhere, including Ontario's Liz Sandals, have suggested increasing teacher training and professional development.
"Quebec seems to be less far down the fuzzy mine shaft than the rest of Canada," Prof. Craigen said.
In Ontario, a Globe and Mail analysis has discovered that the proportion of Grade 6 students at Level 1 in math, the lowest ranking, increased by five percentage points over four years, more than any other level. Students at Level 1 demonstrate limited skills and their achievement falls "much below the provincial standard," according to the EQAO. (Students at Level 3 meet provincial standards.) In Grade 9, there has been little change over the same period. The Globe and Mail analyzed data obtained from the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), which divides student achievement into four levels.
Ms. Sandals did not specifically address the students at Level 1, and said the government's focus is on the achievement of all students.
Ontario's curriculum changes in the late 1990s – the latest version was released in 2005 – were driven by research into discovery learning. The Western provinces and much of the Maritimes introduced a new math curriculum called the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP) that also puts an emphasis on discovery learning.
That approach is hurting Canadian students' performance in math, says Anna Stokke, an associate professor in the department of math and statistics at the University of Winnipeg. She points to Singapore, which ranked second among 65 countries in PISA. There, students learn to add fractions as early as Grade 3. Under the WNCP curriculum, addition and subtraction of fractions do not show up until Grade 7, she said.
Among Western provinces, Manitoba's share of low performers has doubled over the past decade, as has Alberta's. "It tells me we've got some work to do. Obviously that's heading in the wrong direction. … We want all our kids performing at proficient levels," said Jeff Johnson, Alberta's Minister of Education.
The OECD's tests are administered once every three years with an alternating focus on reading, math and science. More than 500,000 15-year-olds were tested last year, including 21,000 Canadian students from 900 schools from all the provinces. Math scores, the focus of the 2012 PISA, showed that Canada placed 13th overall in mathematics, down three spots from 2009 and six spots from 2006.
With reports from Simona Chiose