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Report card on schools reveals new struggles for boys

Canada’s report card on schools goes home to the provinces today, revealing mixed marks for Quebec and growing struggles in science and reading for boys across the country.

Ivanoh Demers/La Presse/Ivanoh Demers/La Presse

Canada's report card on schools will be handed out to the provinces Monday, revealing mixed marks for Quebec and growing struggles in science and reading for boys across the country.

Once every three years, the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, or PCAP, measures the reading, math and science proficiency of Grade 8 students in every province and the Yukon. Though the latest results are strong overall, when pulled apart, they identify weak spots for Canadian schools.

Ontario and Alberta lead the new results in reading and science, while Manitoba and the Yukon ranked at the bottom in all subjects, well below the Canadian average.

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Meanwhile, reading scores for Quebec students plummeted – the drop was so dramatic that it dragged the Canadian average down overall, despite gains in most other provinces.

The results, taken from a random sampling of 32,000 students in 2010, also show that boys, who have lagged behind their female classmates on literacy tests for decades, are now also behind in reading and, for the first time, science. Math scores between the sexes were tied.

"We're used to seeing boys having a disadvantage in reading but not necessarily in the other domains," said Andrew Parkin, Director General of the Council of Ministers of Education. "The report is good for sending up little flares for the provinces. I think that boys in science can be seen as one of those flares."

The reason for the achievement gap between the sexes is the subject of debate, but academics and educators have blamed video games, attention deficit disorder and the feminization of the education sector.

School districts in Toronto and Edmonton are looking to single-sex education to help close the gap, aiming to tailor the classroom to boys by making it more active, choosing reading materials that align with boys' interest, and including more male role models in the curriculum.

Quebec is also looking to reverse a trend – the province's reading scores have been on the decline for the last 10 years, but plummeted between 2007 and 2010, said Ron Canuel, CEO of the Canadian Education Association. Curriculum changes made in the early 2000s have been blamed for not focusing enough on writing. In the last three years, the province has created a new focus on literacy, but "it's likely that those efforts haven't been able to manifest themselves yet," Mr. Canuel said.

In math, however, Quebec was tops, posting the highest scores in the country.

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Ontario was the only province to beat the Canadian average in every subject. Recent education initiatives there have attempted to cap primary school class sizes at no more than 20 students and curriculum reforms emphasize critical thinking and analysis.

Ontario's students are also some of the most practised with standardized tests, which are administered to every student in grades 3, 6, 9 and 10. Schools there have been pursuing a number of test-based targets to have 75 per cent of their students meet or exceed provincial standards.

At the other end of the rankings, the Yukon, the only territory to participate in the assessment, fared near the bottom in every subject.

"The data didn't surprise us, it's something we've been looking at for a number of years," said Christie Whitley, the Yukon's assistant deputy minister of education.

Many students in remote parts of the territory are forced to move to Whitehorse to attend middle school and high school. Mr. Whitley says they often become homesick and drop out.

The Yukon is looking to video conferencing to help improve access to education in remote communities. Schools and community centres there all have wireless Internet connections.

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"We believe that technology is going to be the thing that levels the playing field for our kids," said Ms. Whitley. "The Internet gives them access to the world."

Though Canada is a top performer in international rankings, scores have plateaued, while those in other countries, including Korea and Singapore, have surged ahead. PCAP is designed as a way for the provinces to remain competitive, by comparing successes as well as areas that need improvement.

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Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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