Yukon slips in reading scores

Reading comprehension of Yukon students has slumped over the past three years, according to the country's most comprehensive education survey.

Reading comprehension of Yukon students has slumped over the past three years, according to the country’s most comprehensive education survey.

In 2007, the reading ability of the territory’s 13-year-olds lagged behind the national average. But the Yukon – which was the only territory to participate in the study – fared better than three other provinces.

Not any more. When Yukon students wrote a comparable test in 2010, they ranked last among their counterparts across the country.

The only other group to see a statistically significant decline in reading ability were French-speaking Quebec students. In la belle province, these results have sparked a debate about the merits of recent changes to language curriculum, and the education minister has promised a slew of specific changes.

In the Yukon, these results have yet to make much of a ripple. Perhaps that’s partly because the latest grades merely bring reading scores in line with math and science: all are now at the bottom of the barrel, or near it.

In science, the territory’s students also placed last.

In math, Yukoners fared better, pulling ahead of two provinces: Prince Edward Island and Manitoba.

Progress is trickier to measure in math and science scores, because of changes made to the test since 2007.

But, compared to their Canadian peers, Yukoners have improved at math but slipped in science: in 2007, the territory scored lowest in math and second-lowest in science.

Yukon’s Education Department needs to prepare “clear, measurable” academic targets, said Jim Tredger, the NDP’s education critic.

The performance of Yukon students has remained more or less stagnant for the past decade, according to Yukon Achievement Test results administered by the department to students in Grades 3, 6 and 9, and BC provincial exams given to senior students.

The Education Department does, in fact, have a goal for academic achievement, set in 1994. It calls on 85 per cent of students to receive at least a passing grade, and 20 per cent to receive 80 per cent or better.

But there’s no deadline to meet that benchmark, nor any specific plan for how to reach it.

“Let’s set some targets,” said Tredger, who is a retired school principal. “Let’s identify and allocate the resources to support the school, so they can achieve those targets.”

The Yukon Party has made many announcements about its education reform project, dubbed “New Horizons.” But there’s been little demonstrable results, said Tredger.

“We’ve got a lot of initiatives,” he said. “But they’re not measurable, they’re not being evaluated, and they change too often.”

Absenteeism has long been identified as a problem at Yukon’s schools, and this is again reflected in the pan-Canadian test. Eleven per cent of eligible students missed it – a considerably higher number than elsewhere.

“That’s been a concern for 20 years,” said Tredger. “Let’s set some goals for that. Let’s work with the communities, at the school level.”

Christie Whitley, assistant deputy minister of public schools, says a look at the test results “confirms our data.”

She pointed to the department’s five-year strategic plan, released this spring, which includes a variety of plans to boost student performance.

Among them is a push underway for teachers to provide more detailed feedback – called formative assessment – to students.

The department’s now collecting more detailed data, through the Yukon Student Information System.

And, over the last few years, the department has hired a literacy consultant to work with teachers.

But the department’s own method of tracking students’ math performance has hit a stumbling block. Grade 9 exams, adopted from Alberta, have been sufficiently altered that it is “fairly useless” to compare them with previous years’ results, said Whitley.

These results were supposed to be posted to the department’s website. But to date, they haven’t been. The department’s now considering whether to use another test in the future, said Whitley.

The Yukon spends far more, per student, than most Canadian jurisdictions. Canada’s auditor general found that, in 2005-06, the territory spent $18,500 per student, compared to a national average of $10,000.

The territory also has one of the country’s lowest ratios between students and teachers. (These numbers are partly skewed by the small classrooms found in some rural communities.)

The territory’s graduation rate is the third-worst in Canada, ahead only of the Northwest Territories and Yukon, but behind all provinces.

Broad, demographic trends help explain the slump. Both rural and aboriginal students tend to underperform across Canada, and the Yukon has a large share of both.

Contact John Thompson at