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New Brunswick’s Department of Education says students have “maintained learning levels” despite the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, based on the 2020-21 provincial assessment results.

But francophone reading scores dropped nearly 20 per cent since the last evaluation in 2016, according to the annual report released Wednesday.

And math and scientific literacy were not included in the annual testing “due to pandemic-related conditions,” the department said.

In a statement, Education Minister Dominic Cardy described the results as “better than expected.”

English language proficiency increased 3.7 per cent to 81.8 per cent, according to the assessment.

And declines for all students in the anglophone sector were “generally minimal, below four percentage points,” the department said.

On the francophone side, however, only 56.9 per cent of Grade 3 students passed a Grade 2 reading test, compared with 77.2 per cent in 2016.

Speaking with reporters, Cardy said the causes are “obvious.”

“We’ve had three months of a nearly complete loss in 2020 when the schools were shut, interruptions through last year and more severe disruptions this year caused by the delta wave,” he said.

“And then the CUPE strike added in another little cherry on top of a nasty cake.”

Asked why the anglophone results would be better and francophone results worse if both systems have been affected by COVID, Cardy stressed they are separate systems and “the way that everything tends to impact them tends to be felt differently.”

“You’re teaching different languages, you’re teaching in different schools, and using different pedagogies, and different structures, different books — the whole thing is different.”

K-3 is key

He is most concerned about the impact of the pandemic on students in kindergarten to Grade 3, he said.

“If you don’t have reading levels up to an acceptable standard by the time you’re out of Grade 3, the cost to the system and the difficulty for a student to catch back up again increases exponentially.”

The province is moving to a science-based approach for reading instruction, which Cardy is hopeful will produce “some really radical results.” The current method “really hasn’t worked in recent decades,” he said.

“Independent of COVID and everything else, that would have been a good idea to move in that direction but it’s absolutely critical now.”

Consistent but unsatisfactory results

The Francophone North West School District had similar results in 2016 and 2015, said executive director of learning Louise Morin. The district is working closely with the department to address the unsatisfactory results, she said.

“We have serious challenges in elementary literacy. Especially since the development of literacy skills is essential, since they have an impact on the learning of students throughout their school career,” in addition to playing a role in the success of their personal and professional lives, she said in a statement.

The Francophone North East School District had no data to compare since it switched to a different method of evaluation. This involves a combination of observations, conversations and productions, including tests, “so that the teacher can have a more accurate picture and thus better target his interventions with each student,” spokesperson Ian-Guillaume Desroches said in an email.

But he noted 28 per cent of students “are very close to meeting” the provincial assessment target.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy said he believes switching to a new science-based method of reading instruction is ‘going to change the game for literacy in this province, which is fantastic.’ (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Testing results released by the Francophone South School District earlier this week show nearly half of its students between Grade 1 and 4 are experiencing difficulties in reading comprehension skills.

The students’ scores are lower than in the 2018-2019 school year.

Jolyn Thériault, the principal of Donat-Robichaud Elementary School in Cap-Pelé, said learning challenges existed before the pandemic, but have worsened quite a bit since.

Many of the students experiencing difficulties are immigrants who have a maternal language other than English. These students fared better before the pandemic, said Thériault. In previous years, new immigrants were often able to catch up with other students in their class after a few months.

Vanessa Ringuette, a second-year French teacher at the school, said this is the first time she has ever seen such low scores among her students.

“The biggest challenge is the lack of human resources we’re facing,” she said. “If we had enough people in the right places, we could resolve this problem, but there just aren’t enough people.”

Staffing, class size under review

Kevin Arseneau, the Green MLA for Kent North, said it’s clear schools need more resources, both human and material.

He described the assessment results as “very worrisome.”

“Literacy is the basis of education,” he said.

“Once you fall behind in literacy, you fall behind in everything.

“And it has very big repercussions on our society, when we look at the health-care system, when we look at the democratic participation of citizens.”

Liberal Leader Roger Melanson also called for more resources.

“We need to aim for higher scores, and that probably means that we need to give more tools to the teachers. And that probably means more investment to help them out.”

He could not offer any specifics, saying it’s experts in education who need to answer that.

“But we can’t leave any stone unturned.”

Cardy said he has heard from teachers that “sufficient staffing resources” and smaller class sizes could help. He’s going to spend the next few months looking into such changes, he said.

Higher levels of depression

Students at all middle- and high-school grade levels reported higher levels of depression, according to the provincial assessment.

“We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on the mental well-being of many New Brunswickers and we anticipated that students would also be affected,” Cardy said in a statement.

That is why the government has taken additional steps since the start of the pandemic to improve access to mental health services for students, he said, adding that it will continue to be a priority.

The depression results were “most pronounced” at the Grade 6-8 level, which also had higher levels of bullying, exclusion and harassment, Cardy said.

“Surprisingly, it’s been reassuring to see that despite increased reported levels of depression, responses of students in Grades 11 and 12 remained unchanged from previous years on measures of effort, valuing schooling outcomes and anxiety, despite the pandemic,” he said.

High-school students also reported a “substantial increase” in their positive behaviour at school along with a decrease in bullying, exclusion and harassment, according to the minister. “Relationships with teachers and school staff remained solid.”

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(this story/news/article has not been edited by PostX News staff and is published from a syndicated feed)

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