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Helping schools improve test scores

Transparency a factor: report

Social scientist John Richards has some advice to help Manitoba high schools improve their sinking test scores.

Richards, a public-policy professor at Simon Fraser University, gave the Free Press a preview of his latest report, to be officially released this week.

The study explores the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)'s standardized testing system's results. Richards delves into six specific trends that tend to help or hinder students.

"It's very foolish to think that the only thing you should think about is school results and comparing one school to another. Social conditions are very important," he said.

Richards analyzed each province's PISA results and discovered what consistently worked and what didn't when teaching the 15-year-old students surveyed.

In 2012, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released its most recent PISA standings, which showed Manitoba students ranking consistently lower than their national counterparts in reading, science and math.

Manitoba students scored eight overall in math, just ahead of Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador; and ninth overall in reading and science, just ahead of last-place P.E.I. Richards said transparency might be the easiest policy for Manitoba schools to adopt in order to improve their test scores.

He saw provinces such as British Columbia, which regularly publish schools' standardized test scores, tend to see better results.

"If you want to improve things and you don't know where you are now, you're not likely to improve. The idea of accountability matters," he said.

"In many provinces, they do these standardized tests across the province and to get at (the results), you've got to be in a school system."

Manitoba Education Minister James Allum said the province has no plans to publish high schools' test results in the foreseeable future.

"We don't believe that publishing test scores serves any purpose other than pitting schools against each other," said Allum.

Instead, the province is focused on reducing class sizes from kindergarten to Grade 3.

"We want kids to get that one-on-one time with teachers," said Allum.

"I'm a parent, and I know when my kid had that attention, it produced positive outcomes."

In his research, Richards found the ratio of students to teachers didn't seem to affect students' learning, as long as the student-teacher radio didn't outweigh 20-1.

Instead, the quality of teaching is what mattered, Richards said.

"Canada pays its teachers on average about 50 per cent more than American teachers... that's probably a factor for attracting good people into the profession."

Richards' complete study of the PISA trends and results will be available June 18.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2014 A4

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