03/18/2013 05:15 EDT | Updated 05/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Are Ontario Grade 9 Students Missing the Mark in Math?

scoolgirl standing in class...

When Dalton McGuinty became premier of Ontario in 2003, one of his main ambitions was to improve the academic performance of the province's students. As a result, he was very proud and happy when the province's testing body, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) reported rising test scores year after year.

Let's take the grade 9 math scores as an example. In 2003, 68 per cent of academic students were found to be at or above the provincial standard. In 2012, 84 per cent of academic students passed the test - an increase of 24 percentage points. And it was the same story for the province's grade 9 applied students: 26 per cent passed in 2003 and 44 per cent passed in 2012 -- an increase of 18 percentage points.

This is obviously an excellent rate of progress, something the premier could definitely be justified in bragging about.

However, there is a curious lack of congruence between the EQAO's grade 9 math test results and international testing done on Ontario students during the same period.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS) tested Ontario grade 8 students, not grade 9 students, but it is nevertheless useful to compare the progress of grade 8 and grade 9 students since it is unlikely that the math ability of the province's students would change dramatically in the course of one year.

During the same period (2003-2012) for which the EQAO was reporting amazing gains of 24 and 18 percentage points for the province's grade 9 students, the TIMSS found a significant decline in the math ability of Ontario grade 8 students. This information can be found on the EQAO website.

In addition, the math ability of Ontario grade 10 students was tested by another international comparison of student achievement - the Progress in Student Achievement (PISA) during roughly the same period. The PISA found a slight decline in the math ability of the province's students between 2003 and 2009. This information is also taken from the EQAO website.

On the one hand we have amazing gains for grade 9 students on the EQAO math tests. On the other hand we have significant declines for grade 8 students on the TIMSS and slight declines for grade 10 students on the PISA.

The TIMSS and PISA tests conform to the highest scholarly standards of reliability. If it comes down to a contest between the EQAO tests on one side and the TIMSS and PISA tests on the other, most objective observers would choose the TIMSS and PISA reporting.

Of course, those who choose to believe the TIMSS/PISA reporting are forced to conclude that the math ability of Ontario students is declining.

Although it is tempting to believe in the wonderful gains reported by the EQAO, it is very important that we not be lulled into a false sense of security by the EQAO reports.

Ontario students need strong math skills if they are to thrive in today's high-tech society. Misleading feedback about their current levels of achievement is the very last thing they need.