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Math concerns prompt government changes

January 17, 2017 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor
While the province has announced changes aimed at improving math scores, Alberta Teachers’ Association president Mark Ramsankar is pushing for a break from standardized tests and a broader conversation about public assurance.

ATA president continues to push for overhaul of public assurance model

In the wake of the latest PISA test scores, Alberta Education remains committed to participating in standardized testing programs while Alberta Teachers’ Association president Mark Ramsankar continues to advocate for taking a break from such tests.

On Dec. 6, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) released the results of its 2015 PISA test (PISA stands for Programme for International Student Assessment).

This iteration of the test focused on science but also tested students in reading and math. Alberta ranked second to Singapore in science, tied with Singapore for the best results in reading and ranked eighth in math. The mean score recorded in math represented a slight downward trend from previous PISA results that was also apparent across other high performing jurisdictions.

On the same day, Alberta Education announced three new initiatives aimed at addressing concerns it has heard about declining math scores in the province. The changes are

  • reinstating the written portion of the diploma exam for Math 30–1 and 30–2,
  • adding a no-calculator portion to the Grade 9 Provincial Achievement Test (PAT), and
  • introducing a bursary program enabling current and preservice teachers to access up to $2,000 to cover the cost of post-secondary courses aimed at strengthening their math teaching skills.

“The goal is that these three initiatives will improve the culture around mathematics across the province and will boost self-confidence among students when it comes to learning mathematics,” stated Lindsay Harvey, press secretary to the education minister, in a statement emailed to the ATA News.

Ramsankar was enthusiastic about bringing back the written portion of the diploma exams.

“That is totally welcome,” he said. “We were fundamentally opposed to the removal of the written component of the diplomas when they took them out … That’s the best opportunity for students to show their learning.”

Ramsankar also welcomed the bursary program to help teachers improve their math teaching and was supportive of adding a no-calculator portion to the PAT.

However, he also renewed his call for an end to PATs and to what he called “the PISA obsession.”
Last fall Ramsankar wrote a letter urging Education Minister David Eggen to announce the discontinuance of PATs by the end of 2016 because they had outlived their usefulness and are undermining teachers’ efforts to foster meaningful student learning.

With PISA, Ramsankar said such tests lead to data mining and sweeping conclusions that can drive education policy while sampling only a tiny view of what matters in public education.

“We’re not trying to paint a picture that we don’t want to have any kind of standardized test,” he said.

“What we want to do is make sure that the standardized tests are testing what we want, and that would be essentially the performance of the curriculum as we rewrite it.”

Ramsankar said he’s hoping to engage the minister in a broader discussion about building a public assurance model.

In her emailed statement, Harvey stated that the government intends to continue participating in studies such as PISA.

“Alberta will continue to participate in international studies so we can measure the quality of our educational system in an international context, while allowing Alberta to support the claim that it has a world-class education system with empirical evidence,” Harvey stated.

“The data we get from international assessments provides valuable information about our students’ strengths and areas for improvement. While the data reflects only one small piece of the overall system, it does help guide direction for programs and practices that can help students learn.”

She added that Eggen has invited the ATA and some other stakeholders to begin a discussion on the future of assessment in the province.

“Those talks will begin later this month,” she said.

 Math specialist welcomes change

Some teacher training programs need to change how they teach teachers how to teach math, says Marjorie Farris, a career math teacher (now retired) and the current past-president of the ATA’s Math Council.

“When I talk to young teachers today, they’re not being taught the way we’re expecting them to teach, for the most part. Some universities are, but not all of them,” Farris said. “We’re expecting our teachers to change their pedagogy, but in order for that to happen we need preservice courses to change their pedagogy.”

Another issue in Alberta is that elementary teachers receive relatively little instruction in the teaching of math, Farris said.

Citing a report released Dec. 6 by the Mathematics Curriculum Review Working Group, which is comprised of five post-secondary mathematics instructors and one high school physics teacher, Farris said that, in Alberta, an elementary teacher needs only three credits in math to get certified in the subject and does not have to take a methods course. In contrast, in Quebec (which is the top Canadian jurisdiction in the PISA math rankings), teachers need at least nine credits in math and most have between 12 and 15.

“Typically, elementary teachers [in Alberta] are more focused on literacy and are in elementary because they weren’t comfortable in math in high school,” Farris said.

Farris welcomes Alberta Education’s newly announced bursary program.

“The big thing is we need to get teachers comfortable teaching math and comfortable in teaching math more than one way,” Farris said. “We know that not all kids learn the same way.”


What is PISA?

  • PISA is a two-hour international standardized test issued every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
  • PISA assesses the reading, mathematical and scientific literacy of 15 year olds in 72 countries and economies, including all 35 OECD countries and 37 partner countries and economies.
  • Each cycle of PISA assesses three knowledge domains (science, reading and mathematics) one of them in turn being a major domain. PISA 2015 was the sixth cycle of PISA and the major domain for 2015 was science literacy.
  • For each cycle of data collection, the OECD (or whoever administers PISA on its behalf) randomly selects 150 to 200 schools to administer the test.
  • The PISA test is a mixture of open-ended and multiple-choice questions organized in groups based on a passage describing a real-life situation.
    Students take various combinations of different tests and are asked (along with their school principals) to answer questionnaires on their backgrounds, schools and learning experiences and about the broader education system and learning environment.
  • The OECD presents PISA results as a PISA score for each country (or jurisdiction) with a league-table type of ranking of countries from best to worst.
  • The PISA score scale is designed so that the international average is at or around 500 points, with one standard deviation equal to 100 points. 

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