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Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter acknowledges that ‘there is more work to do’ to improve provincial math scores.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Half of Ontario's Grade 6 students failed to meet provincial standards in math, the latest standardized-test scores show, continuing a steady decline that has ignited a national discussion about how the subject is being taught in schools.

Math has become a challenge for provincial governments as test scores keep dropping in every province except Quebec. Parents and some educators have been appealing to ministries of education for improvements to teacher training and a return to a back-to-basics approach to teaching the subject, one that emphasizes repetition and drills over problem-solving.

Results released Wednesday from Ontario's Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) showed that the proportion of Grade 6 students who met provincial standards in math has fallen from 58 per cent to 50 per cent over five years. The proportion of Grade 3 students who met provincial standards on the math test in 2015-16 has also dropped, from 68 to 63 per cent.

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Meanwhile, the number of students meeting standards in reading and writing has been climbing, the EQAO results showed, because much of the focus in schools over the past few years has been on improving literacy.

The provincial standard is equivalent to a B grade.

"We know there is more work to do," Education Minister Mitzie Hunter acknowledged in a statement.

Some provinces, particularly Alberta and Manitoba, have bent to pressure from parents and educators in recent years by setting expectations around arithmetic and memorizing math facts.

There is no indication from Ontario's Liberal government that it plans to change the province's math curriculum.

As with most other provinces, Ontario's school curriculum requires students to know the multiplication tables – although it does not specifically state that they must memorize them – and solve problems using a variety of strategies. Inquiry-based math involves having students break down problems into smaller parts as a way to work through them, or using physical materials to boost their understanding.

The Ontario government has instead targeted declining math scores by announcing that elementary-school students will receive at least 60 minutes of mandatory math instruction daily. This marks the first time the province is stipulating how many minutes elementary teachers should allocate to a core subject. That task is usually left to schools and classroom teachers.

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The $60-million plan, which rolls out this academic year, will bring up to three math-specialist teachers to every school, and provide math training to all staff and additional supports for parents at schools where standardized results are particularly poor.

"We are applying what we learned through our experience in improving literacy achievement to engage the entire school community in numeracy and to improve the mathematics achievement for our students," Ms. Hunter said in a statement.

Some parents and educators are skeptical. They say the government's initiative doesn't go far enough and will do little to address the issue of declining test scores.

Teresa Murray, an Ontario mother and a retired elementary-school teacher, started a petition in Ontario and has gathered about 3,500 signatures demanding the government revamp the curriculum so that a greater emphasis is put on basic arithmetic and less on discovery or creative strategies. She said that many schools already have students studying math for 60 minutes a day.

"[The] curriculum needs to be rewritten," she said. "Children must know the basics."

Anna Stokke, a professor in the department of math and statistics at the University of Winnipeg and one of the main drivers for change, said more time will not improve results if educators are still teaching a "flawed curriculum" and using methods that don't work.

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"We have been saying for over five years now that there are serious problems with the math curriculum, with the textbooks, and with the discovery-based teaching methods pushed in schools," Dr. Stokke said. "Yet governments seem reluctant to change any of these things, which seem so clearly to be causing the problem."

But Bruce Rodrigues,chief executive officer of the EQAO, said he's hopeful the government's strategy of making daily math instruction mandatory across the public-school system will "start turning these math trends around."

"EQAO's provincial assessments will be an important indicator of the effectiveness of that strategy in the years to come," he said.

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