Saskatchewan students’ math headline misleading

Sask Bulletin
December 22, 2021
By Research and Records Staff, Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation

“Grade 8 students in Saskatchewan score lower in math than those in most other provinces.”

“Quebec students were top of class.”

From the headlines offered by CBC reporter Adeoluwa Atayero on October 14, 2021, in his coverage of the 2019 Pan-Canadian Assessment Program results, Saskatchewan classrooms face a crisis in mathematics. A closer look at the data reveals a much different story. Before one declares a crisis, one should ensure their mathematical analysis of the data is accurate.

A closer look at the findings indicates that 85 percent of Saskatchewan students performed at or above expected levels in mathematics proficiency and are virtually on par with the rest of the country. Perhaps more telling, Saskatchewan’s average score in mathematics has improved seven points since 2010. While there certainly remains work to be done, Saskatchewan students are headed in the right direction and the improvement in scores over the past nine years is a cause for celebration.

Further, across Canada, there is much to celebrate. Ninety percent of students performed at or above expected levels in mathematical achievement with no discernable gender difference in outcomes. 

While these results are pre-pandemic and do not account for any interruptions in learning experienced by students over the past 18 months, it is reassuring to know that at least pre-pandemic, students were performing to expectation.

Saskatchewan students also met the expected level of reading proficiency, and Canadian students as a whole performed well above the expected level.

While Saskatchewan scores remained stable, overall reading in Canada has improved five points between 2010 and 2019. Again, there is room for improvement but there is no cause for alarm. Perhaps the real story is the gender gap that exists in reading at both the provincial and national level with girls consistently outperforming boys.

Finally, students in Canada performed better than their expected level of proficiency in science and scored four points higher than 2013. Girls, in particular, scored higher but boys also showed a slight increase.

Standardized tests such as a PCAP are useful benchmarks for assessing potential gaps within the system, but they must be treated only as benchmarks. The gaps potentially created through learning interruptions, inconsistent attendance and engagement, and ongoing distractions are best identified closest to the students – in other words, by their teachers.

Research tells us these gaps are most pronounced along established lines of economic and social inequality and that existing inequity within the system has been exacerbated by the last 18 months.

Standardized tests may be able to tell us some of the wider story, but the individual assessment and professional attention of teachers is what will support students and all of us as we work through the implications of the pandemic on our classrooms.

Canada as a whole and Saskatchewan specifically has much to celebrate around our public education system. Test scores for mathematics improved seven points, reading remained the same and science scores improved. While there is always more work to be done, Saskatchewan students and their teachers should be celebrated for their ongoing achievements.