Education Minister James Allum expressed appropriate alarm -- "we will do better" -- in response to a survey that shows Manitoba ranks last in terms of math, science and reading skills at the Grade 8 level in Canada.

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Education Minister James Allum expressed appropriate alarm -- "we will do better" -- in response to a survey that shows Manitoba ranks last in terms of math, science and reading skills at the Grade 8 level in Canada.

He did not, however, utter the words many parents want to hear: accountability and transparency.

Winnipeg Free Press files


Winnipeg Free Press files

The NDP government long ago abandoned standardized testing for all grades except Grade 12, which effectively blocks the ability of educators and parents to evaluate student performance.

The government has been urged repeatedly to implement province-wide testing and disclose the information on a school-by-school basis.

Such a system would compel educators to evaluate their performance and question how teachers and principals might adapt and learn from more successful schools. Equally important, it would provide useful information to parents, some of whom might consider relocating their children.

The province says it would merely pit one school against another, completely ignoring the possibility it might be a genuine learning experience that leads to improvements across the board.

Everyone understands some schools in disadvantaged neighbourhoods face unique challenges that might lead to lower outcomes, which doesn't mean they are bad schools with poor teachers. It's also possible some of those same schools are performing well, but there's no way to know or to learn from their success under the current climate of secrecy.

Empirical evidence on the gaps between schools is something every principal, teacher and parent should want. Indeed, many provinces rely on standardized testing to hold educators and the government accountable.

The relatively poor performance of Manitoba students in the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program in science, reading and mathematics should not be overstated. The vast majority of students -- some 86 per cent -- are performing at or above the appropriate level.

The problem for Manitoba, however, is the report is just the latest in a series of studies that rank the province poorly in classroom performance.

Weak math skills in particular have been an enormous concern, not just by parents who wonder why their kids can't do long division, but also by university professors who have increasingly observed students struggling with basic math.

To its credit, the province responded with a new curriculum that emphasizes some old-time values, such as memorizing times tables and learning to multiply, subtract and divide on paper. Calculators are easier, sure, but the point is to teach students how to use their heads.

Mr. Allum offered a few possible solutions Tuesday, such as enhanced teacher education, more support for early childhood education and a renewed focus on fundamental skills.

That's all fine and good, but what will he do when the next report again ranks Manitoba at the bottom of the barrel in terms of student performance?

Schools used to turn out graduates who could think, solve problems, write basic composition and read at an advanced level. And they did it with a lot less money.

The public has a right to know if its tax dollars are being used effectively and if the education system is working.

The best way to do that is through standardized testing and disclosure of the results on a school basis.

There is still time for voters to ask candidates for school board in the Oct. 22 election where they stand on the issue or what they would do to lift the province out of the basement.

If that fails, a provincial election is around the corner -- with more chances to ask for accountability.

Mr. Allum is right when he says the performance of Manitoba's students is not good enough. Unfortunately, neither was his response, which was more political than pedagogical. It's time the province put pencil to paper in search of a better understanding of the issues.