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Student performance on the wane in B.C.

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Student performance on the wane in B.C.

Students in British Columbia are back in school. But this schoolyear, they face a different scholastic landscape than in the past.

B.C. used to be one of the top-performing provinces in Canada but test scores in have steadily declined over the last 20 years. For example, according to data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), since 2003 B.C. math scores declined by 34 points, more than every other province except Manitoba (-46) and Alberta (-38). And B.C. saw the second-largest decline in science scores (above only Manitoba).

B.C. students also went downhill in their reading skills. Only Manitoba and Saskatchewan experienced a steeper decline. This is particularly concerning, since reading is the most important skill taught in school. If schools don’t get this subject right, not much else that happens in school will matter.

Unfortunately, in addition to poor PISA test results, the recently released Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), a global assessment of the reading skills of nine-year-old and 10-year-old students, shows similar worrying signs. While B.C. students still perform better than the worldwide average, the province’s score has declined from 558 in 2006 to 539 in 2021. Considering that the world median baseline is 500 points, if this trend continues B.C. students might soon fall below the international average. This does not bode well for B.C.’s future competitiveness in an increasingly globalized world.

There are several likely reasons for B.C.’s decline, including the new provincial curriculum. Over the last decade, B.C. has adopted a curriculum that emphasizes so-called “21st Century Skills” and puts less emphasis on content knowledge. According to this approach, it doesn’t make sense for students to memorize facts that will soon be outdated. Rather, students should learn how to find the information they need.

However, reading comprehension is linked to content knowledge—the more students know about the topic of an article or book, the more likely they’ll be able to understand what they read. While it’s often assumed that reading is a generic transferable skill, in reality reading is heavily dependent on content knowledge, which is why it’s essential for students to acquire as much knowledge as possible in school, particularly in earlier grades.

To make matters worse, the B.C. government also substantially reduced the amount of standardized testing in the province. Along with literacy and numeracy assessments in Grades 4 and 7, B.C. students used to write course-specific provincial exams that comprised 20 to 40 per cent of their final mark in Grades 10, 11 and 12. Sadly, the government replaced these provincial exams with low-stakes literacy and numeracy assessments in Grade 10 and a single literacy assessment in Grade 12. As a result, B.C. students write fewer standardized tests than before.

Having fewer standardized tests means the B.C. government will get less information about how students are doing. This makes the province even more dependent on international assessments such as PISA and PIRLS, which are only conducted every three and five years, respectively. And sends the message that the government doesn’t care about declining academic performance in B.C. schools. Parents should let the government know what they think about this.

Finally, beginning this fall, the Eby government will force teachers to change their grading practices. Students in Grades K-9 no longer receive percentages or letter grades on their report cards. In their place are vague descriptors such as emerging, proficient and extending. This will make it difficult for parents to find out how their children are doing in school since these descriptors are less than clear.

Ironically, when the government surveyed parents and teachers about its proposed grading system, the response was overwhelmingly negative. Provincial officials cannot claim that the public supports these report card changes when the government’s own surveys revealed strong opposition.

It's not too late for B.C. to change course. Adopting a content-rich curriculum in all subjects, bringing back regular standardized exams, and restoring commonsense grading practises would all be steps in the right direction. B.C. students and parents deserve better than what they’re getting now.

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