By Kristen Lipscombe 

Math teacher Chris MacDonald is pleased that his students at St. Patrick’s High School have achieved top marks on the provincial Grade 12 math exam. But he doesn’t think the Halifax school’s teachers are doing anything special to help their students exceed — they’re just doing their jobs.

“If I could speak for any math teacher across the board, having students do well and having students learn is our No. 1 focus,” Mr. MacDonald, also head of the school’s math department, said Friday.

St. Pat’s students averaged 75 per cent on the standard math exam in 2005-06, according to a report released Friday by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

Within the Halifax regional school board, students at Sackville High School, Charles P. Allen High School and Auburn Drive High School were the other top performers, with marks in the 60s. Those four schools also showed the best results in the province, along with Dalbrae Academy of the Strait regional school board, which had the second highest average overall at 66.4 per cent, the report shows.

“Does it appear that a school like Saint Patrick’s High School . . . is having the same kind of trouble with math as many other schools?” the report asks. “Surely the phones should be ringing off the hook at St. Pat’s as their peers from across the province try to learn why and how they are doing so much better than the rest of the province.”

But Mr. MacDonald called that statement “unusual,” because math curriculum is standard across the province and teachers openly share strategies for successful learning.

“The math teachers in the board have constant contact with each other,” he said. “I don’t think teachers in one school are doing substantially different things than any other schools.”
But the report’s author, Bobby O’Keefe, suggests teachers and students across the province can still learn a lot from each other by comparing school-by-school results.

“Unfortunately, the phones at St. Pat’s remain quiet because no one knows of its results except the school itself,” he wrote. “It would seem to make sense to examine what these schools are doing right and share that knowledge with other schools that are struggling.”
In his report, entitled The Numbers Don’t Add Up: Is it the province and not the students failing math in Nova Scotia?, Mr. O’Keefe points a finger directly at the provincial government for what he calls “bad reporting.”

“The way the province is reporting their results, they’re marking a sample of the exams that are written as opposed to all of the exams that are written,” he said in an interview Friday.
He said other provinces mark all exam scores and report school-by-school results.

Results in the Education Minister’s Report to Parents, released in April, only show a comparison among the province’s eight school boards, he added. “Without getting into the school-level reporting, you don’t really have a good picture of what’s happening.”

According to the minister’s report, the average mark for the Grade 12 Academic Math exam was only 39 per cent, while the average for the Advanced Math exam was just 51 per cent.
But the institute’s school-by-school comparison shows an average of 47.8 per cent on the Academic Math exam and 55.5 per cent for Advanced Math testing. The think-tank got access to the data through a long-awaited Freedom of Information request.

“The results that the province is reporting on the exams that they mark are very different than the exam results that the teachers are marking,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “There’s no way to identify a best practice from the board-level data.”

Vince Warner, director of evaluation services for the Education Department, said Nova Scotia schools and their boards already have the information they need to improve student learning
“This information that (the institute) published in the report — where did they get it from? They got it from the schools,” he said.

Mr. Warner said the department prepares and provides standard exams and marking guides to help the province’s schools. And it’s more cost-effective for the province to mark a sample, he said. “That provides a report to the public and when parents or students need the detailed information, it’s right there at the school.”

He also said the report isn’t necessarily accurate, as student numbers vary from school to school and some results combine the academic and advanced Grade 12 exams. And several schools didn’t submit data.

“The picture there is incomplete,” he said.

Although Mr. Warner said marking all exams centrally is certainly a consideration for the future, he also emphasized that the boards already offer “all kinds of help where we look at best practices and what other schools are doing.”

Carole Olsen, superintendent for the Halifax regional school board, said comparing school averages won’t help teachers improve their math instruction.

“One school doesn’t have exactly the same needs as another school, therefore I don’t think the ranking is going to help,” she said Friday.

But Ms. Olsen did say it would be useful for the province to mark all exams centrally.

“That is a very, very big exercise for the Department of Education to take on — and costly,” she said. “But that’s where you get absolute consistency, when you’re comparing apples to apples.”