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The sliding math scores of Canadian 15-year-olds outside Quebec was an accident waiting to happen. Now that it's happened, it's important to distinguish between what Canada's notable drop in international student rankings can and can't tell us about how our kids are doing.

First, some context: The two most damaging developments to hit public education have been the power of teaching fads and the proliferation of standardized testing. Fads are dangerous because they are often based on shaky hypotheses about how children learn, and are blindly embraced by impressionable teachers keen to make a difference but lacking in the experience and training needed to transmit knowledge or the talent to light the spark in their students.

Standardized testing is not bad in itself. But education policy has become hostage to testing data. The result is a disproportionate focus on raising the average scores of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and less emphasis on producing top students, regardless of income.

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The 2012 math rankings from the Programme for International Student Assessment, in which Canada slipped to 13th place, are based on average test scores. As such, they can only tell us so much. Countries with larger shares of disadvantaged students – such as the United States, which ranked 36th overall – fare dismally. But Norway and Sweden perform as badly as or worse than the U.S., despite a more equal income distribution. So the data should not be seen as destiny.

Indeed, it's far from clear that PISA scores are much of a predictor of a country's future economic performance at all. American education researcher Keith Baker has noted that the U.S. has been a math laggard since cross-country testing began with the First International Mathematics Study in 1964. Yet over that time period, its economy has outperformed most of its peers on almost every key measure, from income per capita to innovation to productivity.

As education historian and influential U.S. testing critic Diane Ravitch blogged after the latest PISA results were released, "what we cannot measure matters more. The scores tell us nothing about students' imagination, their drive, their ability to ask good questions, their insight, their inventiveness, their creativity."

Ms. Ravitch provides welcome perspective, but she is probably too dismissive of testing. As long as you appreciate its limits, testing does provide one indicator of where a population stands in acquiring the basic skills needed to succeed in life. That Canadian 15-year-olds are underperforming their immediate elders in math is worrying. But it's hardly surprising.

The decade-long drop in math scores among students outside Quebec corresponds with the spread of "discovery learning" in the classroom. The idea that students must be free to solve problems based on their unique learning styles popped up in the education literature in late 1960s and went mainstream in the 1990s. But there was a huge revolt when U.S. parents discovered Johnny couldn't multiply; the pendulum has since swung back to teaching the basics.

Yet most English-Canadian school boards embraced some version of discovery learning even after it was being questioned south of the border. It fit with the "equity" mantra that permeated the jargon of education bureaucrats and ministers. "Reaching every student" became the theme of education policies aimed at bringing up the bottom with "student-centred learning."

The objective was laudable. But the approach didn't work. Not only has the proportion of poor performers increased everywhere outside Quebec, but we also ended up producing fewer top students. This may be the most damaging legacy of discovery learning. If 15-year-olds aren't demonstrating math skills that are eminently attainable for any teenager of average intelligence, they are more likely to drop math later in high school – a decision with life- and career-limiting consequences.

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"I'm a firm believer in equity, but now is the time to raise the bar," says Bonnie Schmidt, who runs Let's Talk Science, a non-profit that promotes science, technology, engineering and math education. "Equity at the lowest common denominator is not going to help us at all."

Equity and excellence need not be mutually exclusive goals. But any reading of recent Canadian education policy papers reveals a huge emphasis on the former and mostly lip service to the latter. If the PISA results tell us anything, it's that we're falling backward on both. Has the education elite learned its lesson?

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