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Students in a high-school credit accumulation class at the Kiikenomaga Kikenjigewen employment and training service in Thunder Bay.MOE DOIRON/The Globe and Mail

Aboriginal students in Ontario's public schools score far below the provincial average on standardized tests, according to a new report, which has the authors raising questions about the federal government's approach to reforming education on reserves.

The report from the advocacy group People for Education, released on Thursday, found that literacy and numeracy test results for aboriginal students in the public school system are more than 20 percentage points below the provincial average.

This large gap proves Ontario's public education system is not meeting the needs of more than 80 per cent of aboriginal students who attend, the group that released the report says.

Education for aboriginal students both on and off reserves is a problem in many parts of Canada. Ottawa is proposing to bring on-reserve schools up to provincial standards in numeracy and literacy, which could involve contracting out responsibility for education to provincial school boards or private companies. The federal government is also looking at setting and enforcing standards on reserves, and could take over a school temporarily if it fails to meet them.

Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, said the federal government's plans are short-sighted because provincial schools are not providing the cultural enrichment necessary for aboriginal students to succeed. Ontario's system includes mandatory and optional lessons about aboriginal history and culture. The curriculum, however, is so packed that optional material can get left out, she said. Ms. Kidder questioned whether the federal First Nations Education Act would address the gaps in achievement.

"Our schools are not doing well enough," Ms. Kidder said on Thursday.

"If we set [provincial standards] as our target for the kids on First Nations reserves, we're making a mistake, because the evidence is, in our provincially funded schools, we haven't been successful for aboriginal students."

All Ontario schools are funded based on a per-pupil formula. But those in which more than 7.5 per cent for the students are aboriginal receive supplementary financing. Ms. Kidder said the money is not nearly enough for these schools to provide such things as specialist teachers.

"The formula would have to be changed to really take seriously that these students should absolutely have phys-ed teachers, they should have teacher-librarians, they should have special-education teachers," she said.

Gord Peters, grand chief of the association of Iroquois and Allied Indians and a representative of the chiefs of Ontario, said public schools need to engage aboriginal students in their language and culture. In Nova Scotia's Mi'kmaq communities, for example, where native leaders have jurisdiction over their education system, the curriculum takes a little from the provincial schools but emphasizes outdoor education, the Mi'kmaq language and early numeracy skills.

"People do well if they have their cultural base and if they have their language. In French schools, for example, [French-speaking] people do really well," Mr. Peters said.

Mr. Peters said that the federal government's education act fails to address how the provincial schooling system limits the achievement of aboriginal students. "If provincial standards don't meet the needs of our children at this point, certainly what's being proposed is not adequate for us and will never achieve what we need to have done," he said.

With a report from Jane Taber in Halifax