High school Mathematics exam results still make the headlines. On June 30, 2010, The Halifax Chronicle Herald featured a front page news story headed “55% failed Grade 12 Math Exam.” The electronic version of the story (http://thechronicleherald.ca/Search/1189774.html) attracted over 90 comments, the vast majority of which were critical of Mathematics teaching and learning in Nova Scotia.
Mathematics standards had taken another hit. The stark facts: Only 45% of all Grade 12 students writing the Grade 12 Regular 2009 provincial Mathematics Examination managed to pass, down from 51% in 2008. Most of the failing students still passed, because the exam only counted for 30% of the final grade. Even more remarkably, with or without passing the Math Exam, some 83% of Nova Scotia’s Grade 12’s secured a graduation diploma.
Struggling to pass Mathematics is certainly nothing new, especially in Nova Scotia. While researching The Grammar School book, I discovered that fifty years ago, in July of 1959, the province was in an uproar over the abysmal Provincial Examination results, particularly in Mathematics. Halifax’s two dailies, The Mail Star and The Chronicle Herald were full of stories and letters expressing outrage and dismay over the latest results. Reading last week’s paper, was like deja vu.
Student performance in Mathematics has long been fraught with controversy. In July 1992, the Mattel Company’s statuesque doll, Teen Talk Barbie, was caught saying that “Math class is tough!.” When the story broke, the American Association of University Women went ballistic over the aspersion cast on all young women. The beleaguered company scrambled to change the voice recording and managed to escape a public relations disaster. It was the age of Reviving Ophelia and the story then was the plight of girls and their poor performance in Mathematics.
What has really changed? Today, girls tend to outperform boys in Mathematics and in most other subjects. Indeed, high school boys now lag significantly behind girls on provincial examination results in Quebec and Nova Scotia. Standardized assessments of math and literacy skills in Ontario and elsewhere testify to this new “gender gap” in education.
Whatever the gender differences, both girls and boys still find mastering Mathematics a challenge. The June 2009 Mathematics Examination results in Nova Scotia are only the most recent demonstration of the chronic problem. It is also abundantly clear that education officials and mathematics consultants have tried a variety of remedies and now appear to be completely stymied by student under-performance in Mathematics.
The official Nova Scotia response to the Grade 12 Math exam debacle was typical. Education Minister Marilyn More admitted to being troubled by the math exam scores, but offered little in the way of remediation. Yet another “new elementary math curriculum” was promised, beginning in 2011, that would be “more focused” and aim for “deeper understanding.” One brave Department official, Dan Harrison, conceded that “too many math concepts” were presented to Grade 12 students in “the time available during the school year.”
The Mathematics results created a real furor. Halifax Herald columnist Marilla Stephenson blamed the results on the lack of academic rigour, the absence of homework, and the laissez faire attitude of both parents and students. (http://thechronicleherald.ca/Opinion/1190181.html) Rather surprisingly, no one mentioned that the 2008-09 school year was the worst ever in terms of school days lost through cancellations. My AIMS Research Study, “School’s Out , Again,” released in May 2010 (www.aims.ca) was completely ignored, even though it offered the first detailed analysis of the impact of lost days on actual student performance. In a year when Nova Scotia students lost between 8 and 15 teaching days because of cancellations, it was definitely a contributing factor.
Today’s students still can’t do Math! What’s the root of the problem — the academic demands of Mathematics curricula, the quality of Math teaching, the decline in student work ethic, the laissez faire attitude of many parents, or some combination of these factors? Why, after wave after wave of curriculum reform, do students still struggle to master Mathematics?