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What is Going on With Ontario Math Scores?

Over the last several years, I have seen a resurgence in the reading wars. Researchers have been pointing out the obvious fact that research shows phonics and literacy should be taught both systematically and explicitly. Popular podcasts like Sold a Story have had millions of listens. Hundreds of thousands of teachers have joined social media groups dedicated to implementing evidence based literacy instructions. And states all over the world have been implementing science of reading laws demanding that educators use evidence-based reading instruction. Much of this has been in direct response to the fact that teachers colleges, literacy curriculums, and publishing companies had been basing their pedagogy on constructivist philosophy, opposed to science backed practices. There is palpable anger, amongst both parents and educators who feel they were misled with instructional materials not properly supported by research. 


However, much to my surprise, I have seen very little of this energy transfer to Math instruction. This is too bad, considering that the same philosophies that inspired balanced literacy and whole language are even more rampant in math instruction. I can say that as a teacher my professional training encouraged me not to teach formulas, to avoid rote memorization, to use open ended questions, and to above all else de-emphasize explicit instruction. This is too bad, because multiple meta-analyses have shown these pedagogies to be helpful, especially for learning disabled students. (Rittle-Johnson, 2011; Nelson, 2020; Gersten, 2009 & Cason, 2019; Methe, 2012). There is a large collection of well qualified researchers who have tried to gain attention to this issue, and refer to themselves as the “Science of Math” movement. However, these researchers have yet to gain the attention that the reading wars debate has garnered. This is really too bad, because testing data has been consistently showing Math scores are in sharp decline. 


Canada for example, has shown 20 years of straight decline on PISA Testing (an international test used to compare countries academic performance). 

During this same period, Ontario EQAO scores have declined even more aggressively, with a 17% negative change in the percentage of students at grade level. 

Of course it seems that Canada is not alone in this phenomenon. Indeed, the US and the UK have seen similar declines. With the United states seeing a 6% drop in Math scores and the UK seeing an 8% drop. However, the drop for both the USA and the UK has been less consistent, with some years showing positive growth. 

While, it is difficult to know for sure which factors are most precisely causing these drops. It is hard for me as an educator to ignore the obvious rise of constructivist philosophy. If we look at the Canada and Ontario Math scores specifically, the biggest drops coincide with the release of the Growing Success policy document. While this policy had many good parts such as mandating that schools “are fair, transparent, and equitable for all students”, “support all students, including those with special education needs, those who are learning the language of instruction (English or French), and those who are First Nation, Métis, or Inuit”, that expectations “are communicated clearly to students and parents at the beginning of the school year or course and at other appropriate points throughout the school year or course;” and that “provide ongoing descriptive feedback that is clear, specific, meaningful, and timely to support improved learning and achievement”. However, the policy document also heavily supported pseudoscientific ideas like learning styles instruction (Willingham, 2018), and seemed to heavily reduce academic expectations for students. 


Macro data, like PISA scores and EQAO scores cannot show causation, nor can it show which specific education policies are failing. However, it should be clear that after 20 years of straight decline something is wrong with Math education in Canada. Moreover, ignoring this fact and simply continuing the failed policies of the last two decades is clearly not the answer. Perhaps it is time that we look to the changes being made in literacy and ask, should they also be applied to math. 



Cason, M., Young, J., & Kuehnert, E. (2019). A meta-analysis of the effects of numerical competency development on achievement: Recommendations for mathematics educators. Investigations in Mathematics Learning, 11(2), 134–147.


Clairlea School Council. (2012). EQAO results are in. Clairlea School Council.


Clairlea School Council. (2013). EQAO results are in. Clairlea School Council.


Carlon District School Board. (2011). EQAO results.


Gersten, Chard, Jayanthi, Baker, Morphy, Flojo. (2009). A Meta-analysis of Mathematics Instructional Interventions for Students with Learning Disabilities: Technical Report. Instructional Research Institute.


Government of Canada. (2006). Measuring up: Canadian results of the OECD PISA results. Ministry of Education.


Methe, S., Kilgus, S., Neiman, C., & Chris Riley-Tillman, T. (2012). Meta-Analysis of Interventions for Basic Mathematics Computation in Single-case Research. Journal of Behavioral Education, 21(3), 230–253.


Nelson, G., & McMaster, K. L. (2019). The Effects of Early Numeracy Interventions for Students in Preschool and Early Elementary: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(6), 1001–1022.


OECD. (2000). Starting right: Canadian results from PISA 2000. iLibrary.


OECD. (2003). Learning for tomorrow’s world. PISA.


OECD. (2009) PISA results: What do students know.


OECD. (2013). PISA 2015 results in focus.


OECD. (2015). PISA 2015 results in focus.


OECD. (2018). PISA 2018 results.


OECD. (2023). PISA results. Pisa.


Ontario Government. (2018). Highlights of the provincial math report. EQAO.


Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010b). Growing success: Assessment, evaluation, and reporting in Ontario schools—First edition, covering grades 1 to 12. Toronto: Author. Accessed at on June 27, 2023.


Rittle-Johnson, B., & Schneider, M. (2011). Developing Conceptual and Procedural Knowledge of Mathematics. Oxford Press. Page 9.


Willingham, D. T. (2018). Ask the cognitive scientist: Does tailoring instruction to “learning styles” help students learn? American Educator, 42(2), 28–32, 43. Accessed at on May 5, 2023.

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