Manitoba high school students again rank worse than most of their Canadian counterparts on standardized reading tests, and also came in last on math and science test scores released Tuesday.
Still, critics say the internationally-collected test results shouldn’t be considered as a good barometer for local education outcomes, mainly because testing isn’t specific to Manitoba’s curriculum.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results, which compare results from 15-year-old students around the world every three years.
Around 600,000 students from 79 countries participated in the most recent round of tests, which were taken over two-hour periods by computer in spring 2018.
While Canadian students’ overall test results were strong, provincial and territorial breakdowns painted Manitoba in a worse light.
According to a summary report by the Council of Ministers of Education, Manitoba students were the only ones in Canada to score below the OECD average on math tests.
In terms of reading tests, Manitoba students fared slightly better than those in New Brunswick, but still achieved among the lowest results. About 22 per cent of New Brunswick students were "low achievers" in reading, compared with 20 per cent of Manitobans.
In science, Manitoba also had the highest percentage of low proficiency test scores among the provinces.
"The outcomes are not good, and they’re not acceptable," Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said.
The minister said the PISA results — which have been consistently poor and slipping for Manitoba students since the mid-2000s — justified the need for some education overhauls. Those will be considered after the province receives a final report from the Manitoba commission on K-12 education.
Launched in January, the commission has consulted nearly 15,000 Manitobans for feedback on the education system and will provide recommendations to government by February 2020. (The province plans to publicly release the report by March.)
Manitoba ranked among the bottom-three provinces on reading, math and science test scores during the last PISA assessment in 2015.
Goertzen said he’s already heard about some of the possible factors for the province’s consistently low scores.
"I’ve heard from educators that there are concerns around curriculum, to ensure that our curriculum is being not only adhered to and taught, and ensured that it’s being taught fully. But I’ve heard a lot of different concerns about ensuring that we have enough days to be able to be taught," he said, emphasizing that more days in a school calendar year may not be necessary, but reconsidering how those days are used might be required.
Child poverty rates and hunger are also considerations the government is looking at, Goertzen said.
"There are lots of different things that impact a child’s ability to learn, but I do think we have to start with what is happening in the classroom. What are we teaching? What is our curriculum? Where have there been changes in other provinces that have made a difference? The K-12 commission is fully allowed to look at all of those things and I expect that they’ll speak about some or all of those things when they do report back," he said.
Manitoba Teachers’ Society president James Bedford said one of the province’s utmost concerns should be implementing a universal meal program in schools.
"Childhood poverty has a huge impact on education. It’s difficult to educate a child who comes to school hungry, who comes to school tired," he said. "Retention isn’t good, memory isn’t good. The basic capacity to learn is not there."
Bedford suggested universal funding for mental health services in schools and reinstating cap sizes of 20 students for K-3 classrooms would also be beneficial.
The MTS president took issue with the PISA results, however, lamenting standardized tests don’t properly convey how students are faring with Manitoba’s curriculum, specifically.
"It’s not a good evaluation of how your child is doing in a Manitoba public school," Bedford said.
NDP education critic Nello Altomare, a former teacher and school principal, also took issue with the PISA results.
"They’re not a good indicator because we teach through the Manitoba curriculum unique to our province, right? The best people to talk to of course are your classroom teacher and your school principal. And they’ll give you a real indication as to how your child is doing in school," he said.
Altomare, as well as Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, emphasized the government needs to invest more in early childhood education to improve long-term outcomes.
Lamont also expressed support for a universal meal program "in principle," but called it a "Band-Aid solution" to Manitoba’s over-arching poverty problems.
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Tuesday, December 3, 2019 at 8:22 PM CST: Adds graphics, photos.