Yukon students still miss most exam targets

A growing proportion of Yukon's students met or exceeded the territory's academic targets last year, but the results aren't worth bragging about yet.

A growing proportion of Yukon’s students met or exceeded the territory’s academic targets last year, but the results aren’t worth bragging about yet.

Nine out of 20 targets were met when students wrote their Yukon Achievement Tests last school year. That’s a considerable improvement over the previous year, when the territory’s students hit only five of 20 targets.

“We’re not anywhere near where we want to be with our results, but we’re very encouraged by seeing the trends move in the right direction,” said assistant deputy minister Christie Whitley.

“Education is a journey. It will never be a destination.”

Yukon Achievement Tests are standardized exams, imported from Alberta, intended to measure math and English skills. They’re written in Grades 3, 6, 9, 10 and 12.

The territory’s targets, set in 1994, state that 85 per cent of students should score at least 50 per cent for every exam, and that 20 per cent of students should score at least 80 per cent.

The biggest improvements are seen in math scores. Still, rising averages conceal big deficiencies in some rural schools.

In Haines Junction’s St. Elias Community School, the mean average Math 9 exam score was a dismal 40.6 per cent.

Mayo’s JV Clark School didn’t fare much better, with average Math 9 exam scores of just 47 per cent.

The Education Department has long known that Yukon’s rural students lag behind in many indicators of success, from exam scores to attendance and graduation rates.

The only way to improve this is to have rural parents become more closely involved with schooling, said Whitley. One way of doing this is the department’s directive to schools to hold public meetings to set goals laid out in school growth plans.

The plans are prepared annually by each school, but until recently they’ve been little but a formality. When Auditor General Sheila Fraser examined the Education Department last year, she found it rarely did anything with the plans.

In response to Fraser’s criticism, the department has put new emphasis on growth plans.

“We know that an individual teacher and school staff can’t address all the issues that may be at the bottom of poor scores. Communities are rallying around and they have something to contribute, so that’s a really good thing,” said Whitley.

Attendance rates also improved over 2007-8.

Last year, Whitehorse students missed an average of 14 days of class, down from 17 days last year. For First Nation students, that number fell to 19 days from 25 days last year.

Meanwhile, rural students missed 22 days, down from 26 days. Rural First Nation students missed 29 days, down from 32 days.

Graduation rates dipped to 62 per cent, down from 70.7 per cent last year. The department lumps this up to statistical noise, noting that small sample sizes will normally see fluctuations from year to year.

Yukon’s five-year average for graduation rates was 63 per cent, according to Fraser’s 2009 report. That’s below the graduation rates of all provinces. However, the Yukon graduates more students than the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Canada’s average graduation rate is 75 per cent.

This year, the territory quietly abandoned its old method of calculating graduation rates, which produced inflated results.

It did so by using a method long jettisoned in other jurisdictions, in which the number of Grade 12 students with the potential to graduate were divided by the number of actual graduates.

This boosts the 2007-8 graduation rate to 89 per cent, from 70.7 per cent.

This year the department stuck with Statistic Canada’s method, which it also included, for the first time, in the previous year’s annual report.

This takes the total number of students old enough to graduate and divides it by actual graduates.

The department expects to develop a new graduation formula this year.

It will likely be similar to the one used in British Columbia, where a six-year cohort of students is tracked, beginning in Grade 8 and up until two years following the normal graduation date. This helps capture students who take a year or two off, but later graduate.

Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta also use multi-year graduation cohorts, said Whitley.

“Every jurisdiction is struggling with how to record that, and they all do it differently.”

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