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Socioeconomic gradients in mathematics achievement : findings for Canada from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study Frempong, George

Abstract

Understanding the processes that allow all students to successfully learn mathematics has been an important objective for most education systems including those in Canada. Educational systems however, have not achieved this goal as many students with low socioeconomic status, females, and minority students fail to achieve an adequate knowledge of mathematics. Much of the discussion regarding this lack of achievement concerns classroom resources and practices, school policies within educational systems, and the specific domain of mathematics achievement considered. This study conceptualizes a successful mathematics classroom in terms of its level of mathematics achievement and how equitably achievement is distributed. The study employs multilevel models and the Canadian data from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study to address three main research issues: 1) the extent to which differences in mathematics achievement is attributable to gender, family background, classrooms, and the province where a student attends school; 2) whether the variation in achievement is specific to a mathematics domain; and 3) whether the variation among six provinces (Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec) in the levels of their mathematics achievement is associated with various aspects of school policy and practices. The analyses indicate a slight male advantage in mathematics achievement, and a large, significant gap in achievement associated with the socioeconomic status (SES) of the students' families. Students from low SES backgrounds are disadvantaged as they tend to have relatively low achievement in mathematics within classrooms, especially in Proportionality, Measurement, and Fractions. The most successful classrooms are those in which students from disadvantaged backgrounds excel in mathematics. Disadvantaged students excel in mathematics classrooms in which there are fewer groupings, the mathematics teachers are specialized, and in schools with lower pupil-teacher ratio. Mathematics achievement is equitably distributed in provinces with high mathematics achievement levels. Provincial achievement levels are stable across mathematics domains; that is, provinces with high achievement levels in one domain also tend to have high achievement levels in other domains. On average, Quebec's mathematics achievement is higher than the other provinces in all mathematics domains, and at all levels of SES. This high achievement level in Quebec is partially attributed to higher teacher specialization, lower pupil-teacher ratio, and lower withinschool remedial tracking. The study recommends a comprehensive longitudinal study employing multilevel models with a focus on what other provinces can learn from Quebec's advantage in mathematics. Such a study should conceptualize successful mathematics classrooms as those in which an average student excels in mathematics and where mathematics achievement is equitably distributed.

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