Thursday, 13 October 2016

Alberta's new math curriculum

Will David Eggen be prudent in his redesign of the K-6 Alberta math curriculum?

A few days ago, the Provincial Achievement Test results were released, and the media reacted:
Math scores dip as Alberta Education releases latest PAT results
— Metro News, Oct 7
Calgary students show well on Alberta PAT tests, but concerns over math scores
— Calgary Sun, Oct 8
Math results continue to slide on Alberta provincial exams
— Edmonton Journal, Oct 8
Grade 6 math marks concern Edmonton school boards, Alberta education minister
— Global News, Oct 7
Province and schools eye changes as grade six math students struggle
— CHED, Oct 8

So what are the results?

Here are the percentages of students that achieved acceptable and excellence status in the Grade 6 math PAT’s from 2011/12 to 2015/16 (the data is from the Alberta Education website):

The bandaid solution?

Already some curriculum changes have been made. Recent amendments include memorization of the addition and multiplication tables and learning the standard/traditional algorithms. The format of the algorithms is not explicitly specified. This means, for example, that any of the following three would qualify as the standard division algorithm:

Where did these come from? The leftmost algorithm is the one I was taught umpteen years ago. The other two are the ones my grandsons learned a few years ago during the midst of the math wars. I don’t know if any of these were being taught in elementary schools throughout Alberta. I presume not, otherwise there would be little need for the Summary of Clarifications published here. (Alberta Education does provide a very simple example of a division algorithm. It resembles the one I learned as a youngster — one which I did not really understand at the time.)

A brand new wrinkle in the curriculum is that the Math 6 PAT's will now have a no-calculators-allowed part: 
Part A [of the PAT] is a 15-question test including five multiplication/division questions, five "connecting experiences" questions, and five "number relationship" questions, according to a guide for testers. Calculators are not permitted, and the test is designed to be finished in 15 minutes. 
— Edmonton Journal, Sep 1.
Some people have said that the time pressure created by this part of the test helps prepare the students for the pressure they will have in the real world. (Whose real world is that? Mine? The teacher’s? Part of education is to help students understand their real world, which is radically different from an adult's real world. I think that a child's real world provides plenty of pressure without a timed test.)

Do the PAT scores mean that more changes are needed?

Without knowing how the cut points for the PAT tables are determined, and without knowing why the average test scores are increasing while the percentage of successful students is decreasing, it is difficult to tell if the PAT results indicate that more curriculum changes are needed.

I'm not sure that the PAT results even matter — everyone knows that the real driver for curriculum change is the belief that we must get higher scores on international assessments like PISA. However, as signalled by the media headlines, the grade 6 PAT scores will surely be used to apply more pressure to David Eggen's real world.

A final thought

Currently I'm involved in preparing material that ties our math fair puzzles to the Alberta K-6 mathematics curriculum and to the American Common Core State Standards for K-8 mathematics.

By necessity, I have spent quite a bit of time examining the Alberta K-6 part of the curriculum. It is based upon four mathematical strands and seven overarching mathematical processes which together provide ample mathematical proficiency. I don't think that wholesale rejigging is needed. I feel that the curriculum as it stands already encourages the growth of mathematical thought along with practice and understanding of the basic numeracy skills. I hope this balance will not be upended by the new curriculum.

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