by Charles Cirtwill, Special to The Daily News

Over a billion dollars, according to Statistics Canada – that is how much Nova Scotia spent in 2003-2004 on primary and secondary education. That’s a 20% increase in our annual expenditures from 1997 to 2004. At the same time our spending was going up, enrolments were going down. There were 14,000 fewer students in 2004 than there were in 1997. So, if increasing per-pupil funding was the key to improved student performance, we should be flying high in Nova Scotia.

Yet in the latest round of PISA testing (the Program of International Student Assessment) we ranked 8th out of ten provinces. Three years before that we had been seventh. So with more money and fewer students our relative performance got worse, not better. Unfortunately, there’s more. On the national student assessments, our performance in writing literally fell from first to second worst between 1998 and 2001. This lagging performance carries forward into our adult population as well. On the most recent International Assessment of Adult Literacy, fully 44% of Nova Scotians could read only at the lowest two levels. This is better than the national average, but still nothing to write home about.

But it can be argued that these are relative measures, and relatively speaking we continue to spend less per pupil than other jurisdictions, so presumably, our performance should be lower. I don’t buy it. First, our per capita expenditures on education are going up faster than the national average and faster than big spending provinces like Ontario and BC. Our spending as a percent of our GDP is actually higher than those two plus Alberta, Newfoundland and Quebec.

Furthermore, our relative decline is accompanied by an absolute one as well. Consider that in 2004 only 60% of our 16 year olds were meeting national expectations in science, down from three quarters in 1999. The performance of our 13 year olds follows a similar pattern.

Then consider our equally dismal performance on our own provincial tests. The most recent round of provincial assessments shows our students with an average math score of 41%, and more than two thirds of students failed. Chemistry marks have fallen in the past three years. Only in English and Physics are things getting “better” hitting “highs” of 64 and 55. But in the grade six literacy assessment, more than a quarter of kids failed to meet expectations in both reading and writing in 2005. That too is worse than in the previous two years.

On every measure, provincial, national and international, our results have gotten worse while our spending has increased. It is time to stop focusing on how many dollars we are spending and start focusing on what we are doing with them, because so far what we are doing isn’t working.

Charles Cirtwill is vice president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, and co-author of the AIMS Annual Report Card for Atlantic Canadian High Schools.