April 5, 2020

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Curriculum alone won't address test-score issues

Editorial

Education and Training Minister Kelvin Goertzen has promised he will take decisive action to address Manitoba’s lowly ranking in the annual Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) figures released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Manitoba 15-year-olds scored second lowest in reading, and lowest in math and science among Canadian provinces. Mr. Goertzen labelled the results "unacceptable."

But how to address the problem? Mr. Goertzen said that while he realizes there are concerns about broader socio-economic problems, it’s the curriculum — and how it is being taught, and for how many days — that is the best place to start addressing low test scores.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Education and Training Minister Kelvin Goertzen says while he realizes there are concerns about broader socio-economic problems, it’s the curriculum — and how it is being taught, and for how many days — that is the best place to start addressing low test scores.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Education and Training Minister Kelvin Goertzen says while he realizes there are concerns about broader socio-economic problems, it’s the curriculum — and how it is being taught, and for how many days — that is the best place to start addressing low test scores.

"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," Mr. Goertzen told the Free Press, promising that the province’s long-awaited K-12 education review will have ideas on how to do that.

However, while curriculum and educator performance should be examined, Mr. Goertzen must know concerns over low PISA scores demand more attention to the problems students face long before they enter a Manitoba classroom.

Governments that promise to "fix" such things as standardized test scores almost always focus on curriculum because, quite frankly, it is the low-hanging fruit in this equation. Provinces control curriculum and can change it on a moment’s notice. However, given the problems facing Manitoba students outside the classroom, it is safe to say that no new-and-improved curriculum is going to provide an easy fix.

Governments that promise to “fix” such things as standardized test scores almost always focus on curriculum because, quite frankly, it is the low–hanging fruit in this equation.

It might be helpful if Mr. Goertzen challenged the idea that this is the problem at all. The OECD’s global standardized testing initiative is regularly criticized by academics with expertise in education, who note that standardized tests ignore other important student attributes, including basic problem solving, creativity and artistic ability.

The results also typically assess the ability of educators in any jurisdiction to teach students based on those tests, without any evidence that the knowledge being tested is the most important in the local context.

However, if Mr. Goertzen has faith in the PISA system, he should start to work immediately at addressing the issues students face before they confront Manitoba curriculum.

Manitoba’s children’s advocate has repeatedly raised the alarm about the lack of mental-health and addictions treatment options for youth.

An equal shortage of treatment for adults means even those students who are not addicted or struggling with mental illness might have to contend with their parents’ burdens before ever cracking a book.

As well, far too many students are forced by circumstance to try and learn with little or no food in their stomachs. It is naive to suggest a hungry student need only be exposed to an improved curriculum to succeed at PISA testing.

The province is trying to play catch-up on these needs. This fall, following its re-election, the Pallister government has announced small improvements to youth mental-health and addictions treatment, but much more needs to be done.

Mr. Goertzen should always look for ways of improving curriculum. But he should be aware that focusing solely on curriculum, without dealing directly with problems faced outside the classroom, is a bit like hoping to improve performance by putting brand new tires on a car that doesn’t have an engine.

In other words, pointless and destined to fail.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.

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