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Canada at the middle of the pack in OECD adult-skills survey

Study offers wealth of data for education policy makers and stakeholders.


Canada came in close to average among the 22 countries that took part in a much-anticipated OECD study of adult skills in literacy, numeracy and computer literacy. Where Canada ranks above average in the overall scores, it is usually a little above average; and when it ranks below average, it is usually slightly below.

The Survey of Adult Skills is meant to show how adults in OECD countries perform on skills used in the workplace, including literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving with computers, and which factors – including education and immigration – contribute to the results. The first findings were released Oct. 8 in the form of a 460-page report, part of the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, or PIAAC.

It was the first survey of this kind undertaken by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in 10 years. Approximately 166,000 people aged 16 to 65 were surveyed.

Simultaneously, Statistics Canada released its Skills in Canada report (PDF), breaking out many of the PIAAC findings by province and territory, language group, new and established immigrant, aboriginal population (off-reserve and Métis only) and other sub-groups. This analysis was possible because Canada chose to over-sample its population for the OECD survey: whereas Canada was required to canvass 5,000 individuals, it surveyed more than 27,000. Statistics Canada carried out the PIAAC survey on behalf of the Council of Ministers of Education Canada; Employment and Social Development Canada (formerly HRSDC) and other partners.

In both numeracy and literacy, adults aged 25 to 34 were the most skilled of the age groups. In “problem-solving in technology-rich environments,” or computer literacy, the 16-to-24 year olds were the most skilled in Canada. CMEC noted, however, that “the skills advantage that young adults have over their older counterparts” is less pronounced in Canada than in a number of other countries.

The sections comparing the performance of Canadian-born citizens with recent and established immigrants should give stakeholders and policy makers much to ponder. Canada is one of just a few countries whose immigrant population is both proportionately larger than average and also more proficient than average, noted CMEC.

Established immigrants usually performed below Canadian-born citizens in all three categories of literacy, numeracy and computer literacy. However, for the youngest age group surveyed on literacy skills, the established immigrants performed slightly better than Canadian-born. It’s likely, observers say, that these young established immigrants received their education in Canada.

Who are the Canadians performing at the lowest proficiency levels?

Category Performance at the lowest proficiency levels
Literacy (Level 1 and below) Numeracy (Level 1 and below) PS-TRE (Below level 1)
General population aged 16 to 65 17% 23% 15%
45 to 65 years old 21% 28% 19%
Less-than-high-school educational attainment 41% 51% 22%
Not in labour force 26% 35% 17%
Service and support occupations 18% 28% 16%
Immigrant 27% 33% 19%
Off-reserve Aboriginal identification 24% 35% 18%
First language is not the same as language of the test 27% 33% 19%
Notes: Immigrant is defined as foreign-born. The results for the Problem-Solving in Technology-Rich Environments (PS-TRE) domain represent proportional estimates only. First language refers to the native language of the respondent, learned at home in childhood; this may include a second learned language at home in childhood. Source: The International Data Explorer, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC), 2012. Provided by CMEC.

Solidly average in literacy

Canada is right at the OECD average for literacy, but two provinces – Alberta and Ontario – scored higher than average. The top countries were Japan, Finland and the Netherlands. The lowest-performing countries were Italy and Spain. The United States was also below average, as it was in several categories.

Literacy skills are divided into five categories, from Level 1 (or below) to a high of Level 5, and each is defined in detail. Canada has a larger share of its population in the lowest and the highest levels than the average country taking part. But, even then, Canadians are only slightly above or below the average for those levels.

Slightly lower in numeracy

Canada’s numeracy performance overall was slightly below the OECD average, but nowhere near the bottom. Alberta, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island met the OECD average; no province was above average. (While territories were broken out in the StatsCan report, the margin of error was very high, likely due to the small sample size.)

One place where Canada diverged considerably from the average was that a significantly larger share of its adult population – 23 percent – scored in the lowest level of 1 or below for numeracy, compared with the OECD average of 19 percent. At the high end of numeracy skills, Canada matched the OECD average, with 13 percent of Canadians scoring at Levels 4 and 5.

Using technology to solve problems

Canada performed relatively well in computer literacy, called “problem-solving in technology-rich environments.” Participants were assessed on their ability to use “digital technology, communication tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks.” Statistics Canada said this measure was “unique” in incorporating digital technology into problem-solving tasks.

For starters, 81 percent of Canadian survey respondents were able to use computers to complete the PIACC survey, whereas in the average OECD country just 74 percent could do so. That put Canada among the top seven countries.

Computer literacy was assessed at three levels. Thirty-seven percent of Canadians who participated scored at the highest two levels (the OECD average was 34 percent). Again, Canada had a slightly larger-than-average share of its respondents at the highest and the lowest levels.

Changes over time

Statistics Canada offered a broad-brush comparison of the latest PIAAC survey results with the OECD’s 2003 Adult Literacy and Life Skills survey. While noting the two aren’t strictly comparable because of changed definitions and assessments of literacy and numeracy (and the third category of computer literacy is new), still, its comparison suggests a slight deterioration in skills over the 10-year period. StatsCan said more in-depth study will be needed to understand the changes over time.

Even the initial results of the PIACC survey provided rich and complex data that will be analyzed by agencies and researchers over the coming months and years. Canadian education analyst Alex Usher plans to discuss the initial findings in his blog every day this week.

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  1. ceagr / October 27, 2013 at 10:29

    “The survey points to weaknesses in our education and training systems … It’s not acceptable that one fifth of our population has only low levels of skills,” Androulla Vassiliou, the EU’s commissioner for education, culture, multilingualism and youth, said here in Brussels while presenting the survey.

    “Europe must act urgently to address these problems if we are to achieve the levels of employment, productivity, innovation, competitiveness and social inclusion that we all want to see,” she added.

    Laszlo Andor, the EU’s commissioner for employment, social affairs and inclusion, also called on member states to invest more in skills and training both for the young unemployed and for the middle-aged and older workers.

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