Post-secondary grads score low in math proficiency

The worst performers were graduates of teaching programs, which raises concerns about educational departments.

A new study from Statistics Canada revealed that over 20 per cent of Canadian university graduates scored a two or lower on a scale from zero to five measuring mathematical ability.

The study, titled Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, examined adults aged 25 to 65 of differing education levels on their ability to use math and literacy skills to solve common problems in the workplace.

Individuals who scored two or lower on the scale are described by the study as more likely to struggle in understanding complex mathematical information and in using appropriate problem solving techniques.

The study also indicated lower literacy levels and problem-solving skills than expected for such a highly educated population.

The worst performers were graduates of teaching programs, causing the study’s authors to raise concerns about educational departments. Other students who scored poorly on the math portion were arts and humanities majors. Science students scored much higher and, predictably, math students scored the highest.

Peter Liljedahl, an SFU associate professor in the education department, dismissed worries about teachers’ mathematical abilities.

“The data, over all, is misleading,” he said. “Although it can be argued that all elementary teachers will teach math, and hence need to be good at math, the same is not true of secondary teachers.

“There are many topics for which math is not needed — PE, social studies, French, English, art, etc. These teachers receive their undergraduate degrees in faculties that need little to no math, and then come to us to do a one-year teacher certification program,” explained Liljedahl.

He continued, “These teachers alone account for the percentage of education students said to be bad at math. They have not done math, they do not need math, and they will not teach math.”

Liljedahl asserted that science and math teachers, who require adequate skills in math, undergo the appropriate training.

“As for our secondary science and math teachers, and our elementary teachers, we offer very good courses for them to ensure that they have the necessary mathematics to be effective teachers,” he said.

Daniel Munro, a principal research associate for the Conference Board of Canada, which released a similar study earlier this month, told The Peak that universities cannot be solely to blame for the low numeracy and literacy scores of graduates.

“We should also look back at what’s happening from kindergarten to grade 12, because many universities say they’re doing the best with the students they get,” he explained. “Studies of 15-year-olds show our students have slipped a bit, and some universities say the ‘raw material’ they get is not as good as it used to be.”

To help universities cope with these results, Munro’s report offered the following suggestion: “In general we do very well, but we’d encourage post-secondary institutions to take a look at what they’re doing and maybe integrate more literacy and numeracy and problem-solving into the curriculum.”