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Canada’s student performance, formerly well above the OECD average, is now considerably less so. Canadian students are getting weaker, not better, particularly in math.

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Math scores are falling as more and more Ontario students struggle to meet provincial standards, according to the latest test results released Wednesday.

Education Minister Liz Sandals called the results "a problem," and pointed to the decline in the proportion of Grade 6 students who meet provincial standards, which has fallen from 61 to 54 per cent over the past five years.

Over the same time, results from the province's Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) showed that the proportion of Grade 3 students who meet provincial standards on math tests has also dropped, from 71 to 67 per cent.

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Math has emerged as a challenge for Canadian educators as international standardized test scores have been steadily falling in every province except Quebec. Parents have been appealing to the ministries of education to take a back-to-basics approach to teaching math, emphasizing repetition and drills over problem solving. Alberta has been the only province to bend to pressure from parents for curriculum changes, with the government recently announcing that it will require students to memorize their multiplication tables and recall other basic math starting this fall.

Ontario's EQAO data, however, suggest that students are struggling with problem solving, not basic math operations, according to testing officials and Ms. Sandals.

"The popular perception that kids can't do arithmetic actually turns out not to be true," she said.

Ms. Sandals has blamed teacher training, and her ministry has made $2-million available for teachers wanting to take specialty math courses. More than 1,900 elementary teachers took advantage of that initiative and upgraded their math qualifications over the summer.

Ontario's results suggest that teacher expertise is important to student achievement. Though elementary scores have been falling, at the high school level, where math teachers are more likely to have expertise in the subject area, math scores have been climbing. Over the past five years, the proportion of students in the Grade 9 academic stream who meet standards has climbed to 85 per cent from 82. In the applied stream that figure has climbed to 47 per cent from 40.

At the same time, the proportion of students choosing the more demanding academic stream over applied has also climbed, according to Ms. Sandals. "One of the things we want to do is give elementary teachers more opportunity to learn how to teach math concepts," Ms. Sandals said.

Some school boards, such as Peel District School Board, are developing their own strategies for addressing tumbling math scores. The board's director, Tony Pontes, announced Wednesday that his schools would focus on numeracy over the next three years, and provide special training to teachers and workshops for parents.

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Over the past year, Grade 3 math scores have remained stable, but at the Grade 6 level, math scores have dropped three points.

Student literacy scores were more promising. Reading and writing skills at the primary level have climbed steadily over the past five years, and the proportion of Grade 10 students meeting literacy standards has remained steady at about 83 per cent.

More than 250,000 primary students and 250,000 high school students took the test last school year.

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