Interesting article by Louise Brown.

# Growing number of Ontario college students need help in grade school math, study finds

May 19, 2012

Education Reporter

Thousands of first-year students at Ontario community colleges are taking catch-up courses in basic math skills — fractions, decimals, percentages — that they should have learned in grades 6, 7 and 8, according to an alarming new study.

The findings raise questions about the quality of math instruction in Ontario and reflect a broader public indifference to math that could be hampering economic growth and blocking students from lucrative careers, warn the authors of the College Mathematics Project, a joint study by York University and Seneca College of 35,000 students who take math in first-year college.

The report calls on Queen’s Park to consider a mandatory Grade 10 numeracy test like the Grade 10 literacy test, and even have student teachers write the test if they wish to teach math.

“We’re expressing concern that 8,300 students are taking preparatory and foundational math in first-year college, but the vast majority cover concepts introduced in grades 6, 7 and 8,” said co-author Graham Orpwood, professor emeritus of math at York University who has been involved with the seven-year study sponsored by the province.

A growing number of community colleges — including most in the GTA — offer catch-up courses for first-year students who are weak in math but need it for their field. Others offer broad first-year “foundation” programs such as pre-business and pre-technology that include math review.

When researchers looked to see which elements of grades 11 and 12 math these courses covered, they were startled to find concepts from back in grade school. Yet these college students have graduated from high school with at least three math credits.

How can that add up?

“Interesting question — but remember, you can get a credit with a mark of 50 per cent, and maybe these students are strong enough in areas such as geometry to balance out their weakness in arithmetic,” Orpwood suggested.

“To be fair, not all students in the foundation programs are weak in math, but the number of students who need the preparatory programs is growing and that’s a concern,” noted co-author Laurel Schollen, Seneca College’s associate vice-president academic, educational excellence.

Education Minister Laurel Broten was not available Friday to comment on the study, but noted Ontario’s Grade 8 students outperform the Canadian average in math, reading and science and Ontario students have seen scores climb in province-wide math tests.

Still, when the college study examined 19 pre-technology foundation programs and 11 in pre-business, it found every one reviewed the “order of operations” for algebra first taught in Grade 6 (the memory trick is BEDMAS; do what’s in brackets first, then exponents, then division, multiplication, addition and subtraction).

Moreover, all pre-business courses reviewed fractions, 91 per cent covered decimals and 82 per cent covered percentages.

Why are math skills so weak? Partly because we don’t value them as much as literacy, argued Orpwood.

“If you’re illiterate, it’s a matter of shame. But if you can’t do math, you brag about it — ‘I can’t do math and my kids can’t either,’ ” he said. “But we need to change this perception. We don’t believe there is a ‘math gene.’ Anyone can do math and everyone needs it. Math matters, that’s what the message needs to be.”

A Harvard University study estimates poor math skills in the United States could cost that country’s economy $75 trillion over the next 80 years. For individuals, math also pays; the report said workers in jobs that use math earn 26 per cent more than others.

This may help explain the shortage of math whizzes in teaching; they get snapped up by the more lucrative private sector.

“When I was at York’s faculty of education we never got enough teachers with math qualifications,” Orpwood recalled, and those who tried it sometimes didn’t like it.

“Many math specialists find it difficult to cope with people who don’t understand math as well as they do; it takes a great deal of patience and this is a problem facing countries around the world.”

Interestingly, the study also found students who have been out of school for a long time tend to outperform those whose high school math is fresher.

Among other ideas the report suggests Ontario explore;

• Consider requiring Ontario to use math specialists to teach math at middle school, as in British Columbia and Alberta.

• Consider a numeracy test for student teachers, as introduced in England and Wales.

• Consider a public awareness campaign to highlight the importance of numeracy both to individuals and society as a whole.