The Literacy Workshop

More than 40 per cent of Grade 9 public school students failed their Math provincial achievement tests last year?!

October 30, 2018   Tags:

As part of her grade 9 Social Studies class, my daughter does current events assignments. On the weekend she informed me that more than 40% of Grade 9 public school students failed their grade 9 Math PAT last year and she was really fired up about it. “Mom, how can this happen in our city? Will I fail the PAT? What will the local and provincial government do about this? Am I going to be prepared for university? Why does the visiting Korean student in my class do grade 10 Math instead of grade 9? Why are Koreans so far ahead?”


According to local news, both the Calgary Board of Education and the Calgary Catholic School Division blamed the poor Grade 9 Math results on last year’s introduction of a “written portion”, which has students show their work and cannot use a calculator. The new AB Math curriculum will go back to the basics as Math scores keep decreasing. Currently, only the K-4 draft curriculum is available and the older grade levels will follow.


I work with children after school to help enrich their skills in Math and LA and have noticed a big hole in many students grasp of their basic Math facts. Another thing I have noticed generally is that children are encouraged to develop their own strategies in basic calculations. A lot of the time, these “own strategies” leave children unable to do quick calculations and lead to inaccurate results.


Whenever I taught Math in the classroom, we began with a daily Math drill. These drills were about 40 questions each (Adding, Subtracting, Multiplying and Dividing). Children attained mastery when they completed 3 consecutive drills accurately in 1 minute, then they moved to the next level. In my experience, none the children had difficulty completing the routine task. This was regular public school and a snapshot of our society. Public school means the full mix of language, academic and behavioural needs. Admittedly, I am rather traditional in my educational approach, but wasn’t this always the way it was done? What happened? Where did this practice get lost?


What do the people at Alberta Education have to say about the current Math curriculum?


In 2016, a reporter from the Edmonton Journal interviewed the secretary to the Minister of Education who stated,“We know there are some serious concerns with the current math curriculum. We’re listening and we are taking action to support students, parents and teachers. The ministry is concerned about Alberta’s results on Canadian and international math tests. Performance of students has had “a slight decline” during the past decade. Ministry staff are also concerned the curriculum isn’t clear enough. The minister’s office is in talks with university education deans to discuss how to better prepare elementary school teachers to teach math. The education ministry is also designating “math contacts” in school districts to share updates with teachers and expanding professional development in math for elementary school teachers and student teachers.”


That was 2016 and only the new draft curriculum for K-4 is available. Changes in education take a long time.



What does Alberta Education have to say about the use of calculators on the Grade 9 Math PAT?


The following information I have pulled directly from the Appendices of the Alberta Provincial Achievement Testing Subject Bulletin 2017-2018 regarding the Math PAT:


Use of Calculators and Manipulatives


“Test items are also categorized in terms of three levels of item complexity: low, moderate, and high. Low-complexity items require responses involving the simple recall and recognition of previously learned concepts and principles. Moderate- complexity items require responses that go beyond the habitual and may require more-informal methods of reasoning and problem solving. High-complexity items require responses that are based on more-abstract reasoning, planning, analysis, judgment, and creative thought. (See Appendix 1 for a more detailed explanation of each complexity level.)


Part A: Manipulatives may be used, but use of a calculator is not permitted.


Part B: Students may use calculators and manipulatives; however, use of graphing calculators is not permitted.


An acceptable manipulative is any mathematical tool that can be used by a student to help convert abstract ideas into concrete representations for the purpose of solving a problem (e.g., pattern blocks, tiles and cubes, geoboards, tangrams, counters, spinners, number lines). The manipulative cannot perform the mental conversion or provide the solution to a problem (e.g., multiplication table).”


Between the ages of 11-15, children move from concrete to formal operational thinking. In this stage of cognitive thinking, children begin to think more abstractly and can reason more logically. The “higher complexity items” AB education is referring to above reflect the importance for assessing higher order thinking in Math. This does not involve electronic items that can do the Math for you.


Note: The Appendices of the Alberta Provincial Achievement Testing Subject Bulletin 2017-2018 contain sample test questions that can be used for practice by your grade 9 Math student. The same applies to other grade levels taking a PAT.

Appendices of the Alberta Provincial Achievement Testing Subject Bulletin 2017-2018


Why are South Korean students ahead?


When my daughter asked me why her South Korean classmate was at least a year ahead in Math, I explained to her my perspective from living there for four years and working with Korean students. First of all, the competition to get into the best universities begins very early for Korean children. It is absolutely normal for children to attend after school hagwon on a daily basis for many hours a day. They study such things as Languages, Math, Science, Computers, and Music. Another factor that drives the extra schooling after school are the large class sizes in Korean public school. Parents want to ensure that their child is not missing out in any way and invest huge dollars in their children’s education. Children spend most of their days studying in one form or another and the pressure to succeed is very high. Although Korean children can be a couple of years ahead academically, this can come at a price, including high suicide rates among the youth.


In the UK Daily Mail some English exchange students reported about their experiences of integration into the Korean educational system. One student said that the host family’s child “had up to four hours intensive private tutoring at home most evenings, often studying until 11pm at night.”


Another student spoke about the after school hagwon as, “They’re a phenomenon. The kids don’t get evenings off, they don’t get weekends off.”


These are some of the reasons why Korean students are ahead in Math.


When I asked my 18 year old son’s opinion about the poor Math PAT results, he brought up a very good point. He stated that if the grade 9 PAT did not count on the report card, then many students would not be motivated to try their best. How much of the poor 2017 Math PAT results were a result of student apathy?


Basic Math skills are required for competence and confidence in Math. They are the building blocks and essential in creating a strong foundation in Math, which is needed for academics and everyday functioning in the world. Skills in Math get built upon throughout a child’s education, as they move from concrete to formal operational thinking.


Do your children need help with Math? Get in touch to set up your free session.




Calgary Herald: More than 40 per cent of Grade 9 CBE students failed math PAT


As new school curriculum looms, Alberta parents say math woes unresolved


Daily Mail: Scrubbing toilets in detention, 16-hour days and bowing to teachers: As our schools lag behind the Far East, these A* GCSE pupils were sent to a South Korean classroom for a humbling lesson. So how DID they cope?


LearnAlberta: DRAFT K to 4 Curriculum