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Math test criticism misplaced

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Some Manitobans are legitimately alarmed by the recent results of a national math test that showed Grade 8 students here at the bottom of the heap. But Manitoba Teachers' Society president Paul Olson dismisses those concerns, derisively noting "People lose their minds over statistically irrelevant variations" -- referring to Manitoba's rank at second last.

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Mr. Olson is taking a shot at a number of university math professors, some of whom were recently called to a meeting on Broadway to talk about how to improve the way math is taught in school. (See column this page). But, then, he must also be dismissing the concerns of Education Minister Nancy Allan and her deputy minister, Gerald Farthing.

Both have said they are worried about Manitoba's showing in the Council of Ministers of Education Canada's math test, released last fall. They have sought the opinions of math professors who also raised a concern that university students in the education department -- those who are intending to teach math to primary grades -- have inadequate math skills themselves coming into the program.

Manitoba's poor results have been seen in international tests, too. It is a distressing pattern, but the Manitoba Teachers' Society president reduces those people who recognize it to nervous Nellies. Why would a teachers' union defend the fact that Manitoba's Grade 8 students are almost dead last in Canada? And then deride the political leadership that wants to do something about that? Interesting tack.

Finding some small comfort, Mr. Olson notes there isn't much of a spread between Manitoba's results and those of other provinces that fell below the top achievers on the CMEC test. Misery loves company, as does ineptitude, it would seem.

But the union president makes an alarming accusation when he suggests some of the schools in other provinces opted out of the test deliberately to skew results. He targets Quebec and Ontario, ranked first and second. Indeed, all of Manitoba's selected schools wrote the test. All other provinces saw some schools opt out.

What Mr. Olson does not mention is the CMEC exercise permits schools to exempt students who do not speak English or French or who have intellectual disabilities. Manitoba had a higher student exemption than the national average.

The teachers' union would serve teachers and students better if it focussed on the real issues recognized by most who read the results. Not only did Manitoba's mean score fall well below the Canadian mean, 16 per cent of students performed at an unacceptable level for Grade 8. That was the highest percentage in Canada. Saskatchewan, with similar demographics, saw 10 per cent of its students fall into that category.

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Across Canada, parents and teachers and politicians are engaging in this kind of discussion as people see students' math skills deteriorate. People are questioning math curriculum, and the amount of time spent on core subjects like arithmetic. It echoes the complaints of teachers in middle school grades who spend months reviewing students on the math basics before they can start with Grade 7 concepts. There is a problem with the curriculum and with the value attached to math instruction in a school day.

More thoughtful minds are looking to other countries that have found a better way to teach children math and have pulled up their scores and rankings in international tests. That demonstrates a belief in the natural abilities of students to learn and a recognition of the value of arithmetical comprehension, regardless of what a child eventually decides to pursue in life.

Mr. Olson can whistle past the graveyard if he so chooses. The conversation Ms. Allan and Mr. Farthing have started about how to fix what is wrong is appropriate and necessary. They should look at what other provinces are doing right, but they should also seek the best practices of other countries.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2012 A18

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