Ontario students are ahead in reading but not in math, while those in Quebec are ahead in math but struggling in science, according to the latest standardized test results released by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC).
The Pan-Canadian Assessment Program test was administered to a sample of more than 32,000 Grade 8 students from across the country in 2013. It offers insight into how students in different provinces compare, and provides data that can be used to compare the impact of education policy on student learning.
"It shows us how well we're doing as a nation, how well each jurisdiction is doing, and it provides information that enables the jurisdictions to compare data," said Gordon Dirks, chair of CMEC and Alberta's Minister of Education.
Math has emerged as a challenge for Canadian educators, as scores in many parts of the country have been steadily falling. Only one province, Quebec, has remained ahead of the pack, according to the latest standardized test scores.
Researchers say Quebec's strong performance is a result of intensive teacher training and a curriculum that balances basic math drills with problem-solving approaches. In Quebec, for example, elementary-school math teachers must take as many as 225 hours of university courses in math education. In other Canadian provinces, that number can be as low as 39.
Parents in many parts of the country 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, which fared above-average in the test scores, has been the only province to bend to pressure from parents for curriculum changes, with the government announcing that it would require students to memorize their multiplication tables and recall other basic math starting this fall.
Meanwhile, Ontario's Education Minister Liz Sandals has blamed teacher training for the drop in math scores. 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.
The heavy focus on reading over math has paid off in Ontario, where students in that province were the only ones who exceeded expectations, according to the Grade 8 standardized test results released Tuesday.
Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, said Ontario has been committed to improving student literacy for a number of years, but she worries that other surveys show that students say they don't necessarily enjoy reading. The province's schools have devoted extended time to literacy during the day, for example.
Critics have speculated that the province's decline in math scores may be partly the result of an emphasis on reading and writing. Ms. Kidder said the curriculum needs to focus on all subjects, not just the ones that are tested.
"The balance is always important," Ms. Kidder said. "Yes, we can get the scores up in reading and that is very important, but we have to make sure that students are getting that incredibly important, broadly based education that is about more than the mechanics of reading or the scores in reading."
Alberta was the only jurisdiction where students scored significantly above the mean on all four sub-domains of science: nature of science, life science, physical science and earth science.
Overall, students in Alberta and Ontario earned top scores, while those in Manitoba and New Brunswick had the lowest scores.
Mr. Dirks said he wasn't prepared to discuss the reasons why some provinces performed better than others, but said it would be the subject of discussion going forward, as science is an area of major concern for policy-makers.
"We know this is a domain that is vital to education and economic development," he said.
Participation rates among women are one problem, but interest in science tends to decline with age as well, and the proportion of students choosing to study natural sciences and engineering at university is on the decline for both sexes, according to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.