Why Are Ontario Math Scores Going Down?
After helping to research for our article series on the top-performing Education systems in the world, I noticed a trend that more product orientated education systems tended to outperform more process-based education systems (please see the below image for reference). Over the last ten years, Ontario as I have seen it has transitioned more towards the process end of this pedagogical spectrum and I wanted to know how this would affect student performance on standardized testing. Originally, I was going to use the PISA scores, as we had for the previous article series; however, I realized that education policy was so different across the provinces, in Canada that I could make more meaningful extrapolations if I looked at the EQAO test results.
EQAO Results 2010-2019
Now two disclaimers about this data before I begin to analyze it. First, I actually noticed some discrepancies with the EQAO’s results. Reports on individual years, sometimes did not match reports on multiple years, and I could not come up with a reasonable explanation as to why; nor, did I think there would be any value in guessing as to why this occurred. That being said, whenever there was a discrepancy between two EQAO reports, I always went with the lowest number (simply to create a level of consistency). That being said, all of this data comes from the EQAO’s own reports. Second, there were years in which I could not get access to the discussed data, whether because of work-to-rule campaigns by teachers or because the EQAO chose not to publicly release this data. I have marked these years, within the below charts. All of the data is based on the percentage of students who achieved grade-level expectations on the EQAO or the Ontario Literacy Test.
Disclaimers out of the way, I noticed several trends while looking at this data. First and most importantly, math scores have been plummeting. Grade 3 Math scores dropped by 24%, between 2011 and 2018. Grade 6 math scores dropped by a whopping 41% between 2011 and 2018. And grade 9 math scores dropped by 21% between 2011 and 2019. Within this data, the biggest drop, clearly happened in grade 6 and appears to have reached its bottom in 2018. Math scores are better in grade 9 than in grade 6 suggesting that grade 6 math scores are not entirely correlated with grade 9 math scores. Previous to these years of data, it is important to note that the trend for math scores was actually increasing, not decreasing.
Language scores have been much more stable than math. Grade 3 language scores actually improved slightly, with writing increasing by 1% and reading improving by 18%, across the decade. Grade 6 writing scores increased by 24% and grade 6 reading scores improved by 18%. It is important to note that this upwards trend in elementary literacy does seem to pre-date 2010. While elementary literacy skills improved, secondary literacy skills actually declined by 10% across the decade.
Based on this data, I would propose three main hypotheses. Firstly, pedagogies popularized after 2010 in Ontario have been detrimental to student math development, especially for junior students. Secondly, pedagogies popularized after 2010 in Ontario have been largely beneficial for elementary students’ literacy levels. Lastly, pedagogies popularized after 2010 in Ontario, might have been slightly detrimental for student literacy levels in secondary schools.
Now that being said, there are a couple of disclaimers I would like to make to these extrapolations. Firstly, all of this information is based solely on standardized test results. While standardized test results do provide the most objective lens to look at trends, they also ignore things like the holistic well being of the child. While on average, process-based pedagogies seem to lower academic results, they also tend to focus more on the holistic well being of children and this factor cannot be ignored. Secondly, while there have been generally cultural shifts and policy shifts in education over the last decade, not all teachers will reflect these shifts. In fact, in my personal experience, most teachers do not actually read government policy papers on education; however, these papers do inform what pedagogies experts advocate teachers use. All of this information is incredibly macro and does not reflect the fact that Ontario employs tens of thousands of teachers, all with different philosophical and pedagogical beliefs. Lastly, none of this data can tell us what is and what is not best practice. Ultimately, we are only comparing the pedagogies used previously in Ontario vs the pedagogies currently used in Ontario, this is not a scientifically controlled study comparing all different types of pedagogies.
So what pedagogical shifts happened between 2010 and 2019?
We have three main policy frameworks that I would suggest have helped to drive the pedagogical culture in Ontario: Growing Success, Building Capacity, and Paying Attention to Literacy.
When I first began my research for this article, I thought that Growing Success would be the most important factor in the pedagogical culture of Ontario. However, after completing my research, I no longer believe this. While Growing Success is the most important education policy document written in the last ten years and is cited constantly by education researchers, it pertains equally to both math and Language. As math results and literacy results over the past decade have been quite opposite, I think the policies that affect both subjects equally, likely have had less of an impact. That being said, I could be wrong, the types of pedagogies that work for language could be opposite to the types of pedagogies that work for math; however, I do not believe that this understanding would be reflective of the rest of the scientific literature on the subject.
While Growing Success is the most important policy education paper, it mostly pertains to assessment and evaluation standards. It does push the ideas of assessment for, of, and as learning, as well as diversified instruction, and increased special education support. However, the document gives little specific pedagogical focus for teachers in terms of a product based or process based model of instruction.
The Building Capacity Series, is an entire series of policy papers on math and literacy instruction, put out by the EQAO and the Ontario government. The sum of these papers are hundreds of pages long and discuss dozens of different pedagogical strategies. However, I would suggest that some of the main math pedagogies proposed in these documents are: Inquiry Based Learning, Problem Based Learning, Play Based Learning, Discovery Based Learning, using manipulatives, diversified instruction, Math Talks, teaching multiple ways to solve math problems, and promoting a growth-mindset. I would also argue that these papers reflect a growing shift towards a conceptualist understanding of math learning. While some of these pedagogies are clearly evidence-based, high yield strategies, that I have personally advocated for, some of them are not. Moreover, it is quite obvious that the math pedagogies currently being advocated for, are far to the process end of the teaching spectrum. Lastly, Inquiry Based Learning types of pedagogies are very heavily represented within these documents.
Some of the Language pedagogies advocated for in the building Capacity series are Collaborative Inquiry, critical literacy, balanced literacy, fluency instruction, and self assessment. While there are still many process based pedagogies listed here, there are less total pedagogies being represented, moreover, many of these pedagogies listed are actually product based ones. Collaborative Inquiry, critical literacy, and fluency instruction are all what I would argue constitute as product based pedagogies. The Paying Attention to Literacy policy paper at its core appears to primarily advocate for balanced literacy, transparent assessments, and collective teacher efficacy. While I would not label the Ontario Language pedagogical culture as product based, it is more product based than the pedagogical instruction of math. I also think it is worth noting that there appears to be less total pedagogies being advocated for in language compared to math, which might make it easier for teachers to be comfortable with each individual pedagogical concept.
While, these government policies on instruction have an impact on pedagogical culture, they are only one peice of that puzzle. Education departments in universities also influence the culture of teaching, as do individual teachers across the province, country, and world. In my personal anecdotal experience, I have seen a lot more attention paid to process based pedagogies than product based ones over the past decade.
At the end of the day, while I do not believe all of the current pedagogies being implemented in Ontario language instruction are evidence-based or best practice, Language scores are generally increasing and it is hard to argue with results. However, math scores have been plummeting far beyond, what I would call the acceptable level of what would logically be within the statistical realm of error. Ontario students are getting significantly worse at math. While I think there is a time and place for more holistic teaching methods, I do think Ontario needs to seriously reconsider the direction, in which it has taken math instruction, if it wants the next generation of students to be proficient in math.
Written by Nate Joseph,
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