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Ontario's Education Minister Liz Sandals.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Ontario needs to improve teacher training in math, the province's Education Minister has said in response to standardized test results that revealed students are losing ground in the subject for the fifth year in a row.

The province's Education Quality and Accountability Office, which administers the annual tests, found that the number of Grade 3 and 6 students meeting the provincial standard in math fell, despite promising gains in reading and writing skills.

"The academic background of a lot of our elementary teachers is more in the arts – they don't necessarily have an extensive background themselves in math and science," Education Minister Liz Sandals said on Wednesday. "The professional development of teachers actually matters here, because we're actually seeing the results in areas where the teachers have a high comfort level and a lot of new training on pedagogy for literacy and writing skills. ... We need to deal with math so that the teachers have the same comfort level with teaching math that they do with reading and writing."

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Math scores have been slipping across the country. While Canada continues to outperform other countries, a 2009 report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found math performance decreased in six provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia. New results are expected later this year.

A lack of math knowledge early in school can lead students not to take it in university even as jobs requiring ability in math continue to grow. And gaps in numeracy can lead to poor decisions on mortgage rates or household budgeting.

At issue is how prepared graduating teachers are to teach math and a variety of other subjects.

"The arts are always a valuable foundation for teaching. However, we do need more applicants to our programs with math and science backgrounds," said Ron Owston, York University's dean of education. All teacher candidates attending York are required to study mathematics methods. The teacher program also offers students the option of taking a course on developing a deeper understanding of math thinking, learning and teaching.

Prof. Owston said the government's plan to increase the length of teachers college from one year to two will allow more time for math education. "Although the design of our new program is far from completed, I expect us to increase the emphasis on math education," Prof. Owston said.

A spokeswoman for the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario said teachers are "well prepared for the classroom" and work on improving their skills through courses. The union contends that standardized testing provides a limited snapshot of what's happening in the classroom.

The data from the EQAO showed that 57 per cent of Grade 6 students met the provincial standard in math in the 2012-13 school year, down from 63 per cent who met the standard in 2008-09. Similar results were posted at the Grade 3 level, where 67 per cent of students met the standard in the last academic year, a drop from 70 per cent meeting the standard in 2008-09.

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Some contend that the math curriculum rather than teacher education is to blame for the lower scores because it places more emphasis on real-world concepts and applications than on rote learning. In the Grade 3 math curriculum, for example, a sample problem states: "While walking with your class, stop when you think you have travelled one kilometre."

Advocates say students are more enthusiastic about the subject under the new curriculum, but others charge that students are not necessarily learning the basics such as multiplication tables.

The Ontario curriculum was changed in the late 1990s in an attempt to meet the standards through problem solving based on open-ended investigations rather than memorization.

Ontario has become obsessed with test scores in the global race to produce the best and the brightest. The Liberal government put additional funding into boosting the scores by placing literacy and numeracy teachers in schools, for example. Former premier Dalton McGuinty's goal was to have 75 per cent of students reach the provincial standard on reading, writing and math.

Elementary students have met those standards in reading and writing. The latest results from EQAO show that at the Grade 6 level, for example, 77 per cent of students met the provincial standards for reading skills and 76 per cent met the standard in writing in 2012-13 school year, up from 69 per cent and 67 per cent respectively in 2008-09.

The tests were taken during a frustrating time for parents and students in the public school system. Elementary and high school teachers were in a fight with the province's Liberal government over legislation, Bill 115, that dictated the terms of their contracts. Teachers stopped voluntary activities such as leading clubs or sports teams and offering extra help after school.

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