Students were expected to struggle on ‘no calculator’ tests, says education minister

Students were expected to struggle on ‘no calculator’ tests, says education minister

The fact that Grade 6 students in Alberta struggle to do arithmetic without the aid of a calculator came as no surprise to the province, says Education Minister David Eggen.

Eggen said he expected to see poor results on a new “mental math” portion of the provincial exams.

‘Now we can get cracking’

“We had our suspicions about this type of calculation for students,” Eggen said in an interview Friday with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.

“We saw, over a number of years, that Grade 6 student results had some room for improvement. So there it was, clear as a bell. And now we can get cracking and look for ways to improve.”

A new non-calculator portion of a provincial math test was introduced for the first time during the Provincial Achievement Test in June.

Almost 35 per cent of students who wrote the test failed to meet the “acceptable standard” on the section that requires problems to be answered without a calculator.

Students had 15 minutes to complete the section. The province lists some sample questions as: What is 78.03 divided by 9? What is 7 minus 4.09?

Eggen first proposed the testing in September 2016. He said he expected students would struggle to complete the test with just a pencil and paper.

“Obviously, this is why I put this in, in the first place,” Eggen said. “I put a measurement into the Grade 6 achievement exam so that I could make some adjustments to improve outcomes.

“So here we are, like a laser on elementary mathematics, and we have the resources and the will to focus on that.”

Almost 77 per cent of students met the “acceptable” standard when looking at both the calculator and non-calculator portions of the provincial exam.

That number is at a five-year low; in the 2012-2013 school year, almost 80 per cent of students met that standard.

Nearly 45,000 students wrote the exam during the last school year.

Last year, Eggen modified the elementary math curriculum to require students to learn multiplication tables and step-by-step methods for addition and subtraction.

‘Confuses the whole issue’

Alberta’s “discovery-based” math curriculum has been facing criticism for years.

Critical parents and educators say the current system — which provides several problem solving methods for simple arithmetic questions and puts less emphasis on rote memorization — leaves students unprepared.

Eggen said the latest results will help the province shape the new curriculum to ensure students are learning math fundamentals.

The new testing is part of a broader plan to get back to the basics when it comes to math, Eggen said. He said he hopes ongoing efforts to improve lesson plans will lead to better results in the future.

“I advocate for using the very best tools for students to learn mathematics, and so this idea of rote memorization or just discovery math, I think it just confuses the whole issue.

“There is always a lot to be done.”

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