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Helping schools improve test scores

Transparency a factor: report

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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.

What works -- and doesn't work


JOHN RICHARDS' report, the second of his two-part Warning Signs for Canadian Educators: The Bad News in Canada's PISA Results, examines the tendencies he found within effective and ineffective school systems. The report will be released this week, but Richards told the Free Press its six main points in advance.


What works well:

1. Early-childhood education

Richards said students who were enrolled in early childhood education programs tend to perform better once they get to high school.

"The problem in Canada is that those who do go through (early-childhood education) tend to be more successful than those who don't. The benefit is even greater for children from disadvantaged families," he said.


2. Public accountability

Publishing standardized test scores is another way to improve schools' scores, said Richards.

He noticed better PISA scores among provinces that regularly published test results. "In B.C., they do post the results publicly. So if you've got a young child you're thinking of taking to school, you can look up and find out how kids are doing on basic studies like math."


3. Teachers' wages

"Canada pays teachers well relative to most countries, which is probably a factor as to why Canada's test scores overall are very good," Richards said.


What doesn't matter:

4. Student-teacher ratio

Richards said the number of students per teacher doesn't seem to affect students' learning, as long as the student-teacher ratio is below 20-1.


5. Number of hours of math

Richards said he couldn't find a correlation between augmenting the number of hours of math instruction and augmenting test scores.

"It doesn't work. There's no relation in Canada or internationally in monitoring whether kids do well or badly in math if they get more or fewer hours of instruction per week."


What works in Quebec:

6. Private school system

"The role of private schools in Quebec is valuable," said Richards, who is a fan of public schools.

He said the popularity of private schools in Quebec increases the competitiveness within public schools.


-- Botelho-Urbanski

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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