In British Columbia, 60 per cent of Grade 10 students are not proficient in numeracy and 26 per cent are not proficient in literacy, according to a new report based on mandatory provincial assessments in 2019/20, the most recent year of available data.
Also of concern, only 52 per cent of Grade 10 students completed the literacy assessment and 47 per cent completed the numeracy assessment, even though the assessments are “mandatory” to graduate (unless a parent formally withdraws their child). Only 17 schools in the entire province saw participation rates of 90 per cent or more.
Why does this matter? Standardized testing provides a fair, equal, objective measure of all students, illuminating ways students and schools can improve. In B.C., it has long served as a tool to inform parents, educators and taxpayers about the state of education in the province.
Yet this report reveals worrying trends in the changing nature of student testing in B.C., the low participation rates in these tests, and the low levels of proficiency in core subjects.
Even prior to this, math proficiency in B.C. was declining. Between 2003 and 2018, math scores dropped steadily in every province, with the steepest declines in B.C., Alberta and Manitoba, according to Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) data.
Simply put, to know how to improve, you must know how you’re doing.
Several factors may explain the low participation rates. First, the pandemic likely contributed, but it was not the only factor. Grade 10 students have four opportunities to write these assessments—November, January, April and June. In the 2019/20 school year, participation rates in June dropped significantly from the previous year and school closures would have had an impact.
But again, that’s not the whole story. While 2019/20 was the first year for the Grade 10 literacy assessment, there are three years of data for the Grade 10 numeracy assessment. And participation in the numeracy assessment was not dramatically different in 2018/19 versus 2019/20. In fact, two-thirds of schools included in this analysis saw their overall participation rates for the numeracy assessment increase between 2017/18 and 2019/20.
So what else is to blame? The BC Teachers’ Federation, which has long advocated against standardized testing, has intensified its opposition over the last two years, encouraging parents to opt their kids out. Of course, standardized tests are a measure of student academic progress—but also a measure of teacher performance.
Finally, the tests themselves have changed significantly. The B.C. government recently shifted from higher-stakes standardized exams in secondary school, where the exam mark counted toward a portion of students’ course grade, to lower-stakes student assessments where there are no percentages given and performance does not impact grades. For obvious reasons, the new assessments may matter less to individual students. And as a result, the assessment score data that parents, educators and policymakers use to make improvements is likely much lower quality.
Only about half of Grade 10 students in B.C. completed the latest “mandatory” student assessments, which revealed worryingly low levels of proficiency in literacy and numeracy. After nearly two years of school disruptions, the government and educators must increase participation fast. Only then can British Columbians understand how their children are doing and discuss what can be done to improve their skills in math and reading.
Paige MacPherson is associate director of education policy at the Fraser Institute.