Lack of aptitude in Grade 9 math about more than calculators - CBC News

By Christine | Added May 24, 2019

'Every year, if something is not understood, that topic isn’t going to go away, it’s going to be back'

Albertans weighed in Friday on the revelation that slightly more than a third of Grade 9 students in the province failed a standardized math test. 

As reported this week by CBC, 2,400 Grade 9 students in the Calgary public school system failed the provincial standardized math test last school year. 

After standardized tests showed slumping math grades in Calgary, tutors said the frequent use of calculators in the classroom is an "extreme weakness" that prevents students from understanding math and sets them up for big challenges later in school.

And the passing grade wasn't the common benchmark of 50 per cent. Instead, it was set at 42 per cent or higher.

Michael Strang, a retired high school math teacher who taught in Calgary for 25 years, is now the director of Mathnasium in Calgary, an after-school math tutoring program for students in Grade 3 and up.

He was a guest Friday on Alberta@Noon and said the issue involves more than just whether or not students can use calculators on a test. 

"Those problems don't just happen at Grade 9, math being a cumulative subject that it is, it's a source of one thing leading to another," he told host Judy Aldous. 

"Every year, if something is not understood, that topic isn't going to go away, it's going to be back. But if you didn't understand it, then that doesn't work with the next topic you have to do, and then you get two, four, eight [topics] it just keeps going like that."

'We don't fail kids anymore'

Jason Brewster called from Grande Prairie to say the problem is about more than just the use of calculators. 

"I've experienced this with my own children. We don't fail kids anymore," he said. 

"My son … was advanced three grades in a row and that continued to happen because they refused to fail him. Now he's three grades behind in multiple subjects and I just feel like after talking with principals and teachers, it just seems like the go-to option when your kid isn't up to snuff in grades."

Kathryn Hartford, from Edmonton, expanded on that comment. 

"I think we are pushing kids through for a number of reasons," she said. "There is a lot of negative effects from failing children. I think sometimes it's not the children's fault they're failing, there might be things going on at home, which might lead to that. 

"It's not fair to the kids to keep them held back a grade but I do think that's why Grade 9 scores are so low."

Similar across the country

Jim Power has spent the past 15 years teaching accounting to first-year university business students, and said he's seen basic math skills on the decline.

"I've just moved to Calgary from Halifax and the experience in Nova Scotia is no different than what I'm seeing here in Calgary," he said. "Whether it's first-year or third-year students in commerce, [we'll] do a simple question like … what's four per cent of $20,000?

"My experience is the same whether it's on the East Coast or out here, the students will gravitate to the calculator — and that's what they need to do a straightforward, simple multiplication. They can't do it."

With files from Alberta@Noon.