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Grading Manitoba’s Children: Tests Show Room for Improvement

May 5, 2018 8:09 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman–Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press

School Classroom

NEEPAWA, Man. — Turns out, improving the skills of Manitoba students isn’t as easy as A-B-C. This week, the results of the 2016 Pan-Canadian Assessment (PCAP) of reading, science and math were released, and students and educators in this province got some good news and some bad. While Manitoba students’ skills have improved, they still lag behind those in other provinces.

The PCAP is a national standardized test administered by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. The test is given every three years to a random sample of 30,000 Grade 8 students across the country. Because curriculum varies from province to province, the test focuses on the core areas of reading, science and math. It’s designed to determine if students in different provinces achieve the same level of proficiency at the same time. In addition to the test results, the assessment also includes a questionnaire to collect “contextual information.” This includes questions about demographics, socioeconomic factors and teaching and learning conditions, which can help interpret results. The first test was conducted in the spring of 2007. The testing program is designed to help provincial education ministries monitor and assess their educational systems.

Each time the test is administered, one of the three areas is chosen as the focus, or primary domain, while the other two subject areas are the minor domains. For the 2016 test, the focus was on reading. Within the primary domain, there are subdomains, which cover a range of skills. For example, in reading, subdomains include understanding texts, interpreting texts, responding personally to texts and responding critically to texts. Students’ results were split into three levels: as expected, below expected and above expected.

The good news is that across Canada, 88 percent of students read at expected or above-expected levels. With Manitoba, the problems fall at either end of the spectrum. While 74 percent of students’ skills fell into the “as expected” category, compared to the 73 percent Canadian average, Manitoba had one of the highest rates of those performing worse than expected and one of lowest rates of those performing better than expected. When you combined results of students performing at or above expectations, Manitoba students fall below the Canadian average. Looking a little deeper, Manitoba students performed below the Canadian average in all four reading sub-domains.


Between 2010 and 2016, the reading skills of Manitoba students did improve. But so did those of Canadians students as a whole. Manitoba also fell below the Canadian mean in mathematics and science, though there has been an improvement in both science and mathematics proficiency since they were the major domains. Overall, English language students performed better than French language students and girls performed better than boys.

Over the past decade, initiatives including smaller class sizes, basic arithmetic for young children and a focus on early years math and science have come into effect. While many of them are too recent to have had much of an impact on these test takers, the next PCAP, planned for 2019, should show the effectiveness of these initiatives.

Canadian students perform well compared to those in other developed countries and that applies to Manitoba students as well. But these skill gaps have important implications. At the lowest level, students show a limited understanding of texts, provide a limited understanding of what’s described in a text, use limited evidence to support a stated viewpoint and can only provide vague critical responses. These skills; the ability to communicate and the ability to reason effectively, are all extremely import throughout life, on both a personal and professional level. Without an active response, these shortfalls will persist throughout a student’s education and can impact the doors that are open to them, and those that are closed.