New Brunswick's minister of education said he expected to see some decline in students' academic skills and mental wellness on this year's provincial assessments.
The Department of Education released results from the 2021-2022 evaluations earlier this week. They show a drop in some English literacy and francophone math success rates, but otherwise have few significant changes from the previous year.
"I'm not horribly disappointed given that we were expecting pretty steep drops because of the huge interruptions in learning we've seen over the last couple of years with months of school cancelled and being online and back and forth," said Minister of Education Dominic Cardy.
The assessments took place this past spring to evaluate students' skills in English and French reading, scientific literacy, and mathematics. Select grades from 2 to 12 in both anglophone and francophone school districts participated.
While many results stayed stable, a number of them remained relatively low. For instance, 64 per cent of anglophone Grade 6 students were successful on their science assessment. In the francophone sector, Grade 3 students had a 63.2 per cent success rate on their reading assessment.
There were some major discrepancies between schools and districts. For example, Grade 9-12 students at Rothesay High School received 93.7 per cent on their English Language Proficiency Assessment, while Moncton High School scored 73 per cent.
Cardy said the best way to improve academic performance is by listening to people on the front lines.
"We need to have better targeting of our resources and make sure that we listen more to our teachers," he said. "That's been one of the biggest failures in our system over the last decade. We've had too many politically driven approaches to education rather than listening to teachers and giving them the stuff that they need to be able to do their jobs."
Students struggle with mental health
A student survey conducted alongside the spring provincial assessments, found 50 per cent of students in Grades 6 to 12 experience symptoms of anxiety. About 46 per cent reported signs of depression.
Cardy said he expects the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated pre-existing mental health issues and that the department is doing what it can to make sure appropriate supports are in place.
Cardy said a "large number" of individuals with "advanced qualifications" relating to mental well-being were hired for the current school year.
"Increasing the number of people with high-level professional skills who can take some of the burden off of the classroom teachers and classroom staff will make a difference and help quite quickly," he said.
Megan Mitton, Green Party MLA and education critic, said improving overall student well-being needs to be a priority and it will positively impact academic achievement.
"One of the priorities needs to be the mental health and wellness of the students and people working with them," she said.
Mitton also stressed the importance of having a universal food program in schools to ensure all students have access to breakfast and lunch.
"By addressing some of those things, that makes sure educators can do the work they need to do in the classroom to bring students where they need to be," she said.
The province announced $550,000 for school breakfast programs, which it says will help up to 110 schools until December. Cardy said the initiative expands on an earlier pilot program and that the ultimate goal is for every New Brunswick school to have a breakfast program.
"Every student in the province needs to have food to learn, because you can't learn if you've got an empty stomach," he said. "We need to make sure that, on the one hand, we don't remove responsibility from parents for looking after their kids, but also realizing that as a society, we've got to take responsibility for the next generation and make sure they're learning again."
Personal trip to Ukraine
Cardy was on a personal trip to Ukraine at the start of the school year, including when the assessment results were released. He told CBC about his long interest in the country and its struggles against Russia. While there, he said he tried to create more links between Ukraine and New Brunswick.
He said Ukrainians are "astonishingly tough" and "determined to take the Russians out."
"When we talk about democratic values and standing up for human rights, they're doing that every single day and putting their life on the line for it," he said. "So it was pretty inspirational in that way, but no one should have to go through with having to go through right now."