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Margin Notes

Canada’s PISA results: what you need to know

We're still doing well compared to most other countries, but we're slipping.


The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, released today the results of its fifth survey of the competencies of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science (with a particular focus on mathematics this time around) in 65 countries and economies. The 2012 survey tested over half a million students, including 21,000 Canadians from 900 schools. It’s a heck of a lot of data to wade through and no doubt policy analysts will be doing just that for weeks, combing through the results in detail and pondering their implications.

How did Canada do? It depends on who you ask. According to the Council of Ministers of Education Canada, this latest report “shows high levels of achievement by Canadian students.” (For more detail, the CMEC has prepared an entire 89-page report on the latest findings, Measuring up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study.)

The CMEC notes that Canadian 15-year-olds “placed well above the OECD average and remain among the top performers in mathematics.” Of the 65 countries and regional economies participating in the assessment, only nine outperformed Canada at a statistically significant level, with seven other countries performing at the same level as Canada. The PISA 2012 reading and science results also put Canada in the top tier of participating countries and economies, says the CMEC. Only four surpassed Canada in reading and only seven performed better than Canada in science.

Canada also continues to stand out in terms of its high equity in student performance, again according to the CMEC. This latter is a measure of the gap between the highest- and lowest-performing students and is an indicator of the relative equity of provincial education systems. That’s a good thing.

Nevertheless, the CMEC is putting a bit of a gloss on things. There is no hiding the fact that Canada is slipping, specifically in math: we placed 13th in the math scores this year, down three spots from 2009 and six spots from 2006, prompting the Globe and Mail to claim that “Canada’s fall in math-education ranking sets off alarm bells.”

The Globe report also notes that this result comes on the heels of a recent OECD Survey of Adult Skills, called the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, which showed that adult Canadians ranked below average in numeracy skills compared to 23 other countries (although Canadians did well in digital skills and were average in literacy skills).

Last week, John Manley, former federal cabinet minister and now head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, decried Canada’s slipping skills performance. “It’s time to stop congratulating ourselves on the quality of our primary, secondary and postsecondary education systems, and face up to the fact that Canada’s performance in international rankings is getting worse, not better,” he said in a statement.

Now, with the release of the latest PISA results, Mr. Manley was again in high dudgeon, telling the Globe: “This is on the scale of a national emergency.”

That is overstating things. This is far from a national crisis, but the results should shake us from any complacency we may feel about our relative educational strengths. Our education system remains among the very best in the world, but there are evidently weaknesses that need to be addressed in terms of student achievement, the curriculum and teacher preparedness. And, we are falling behind other countries.

On a side note, for this latest PISA, Canada tested a much larger group of students than what is typically tested in most countries to allow for a more reliable breakdown of results by province, language group, etc. Here are some of the other key findings from PISA 2012:

  • Quebec students performed particularly well in mathematics – with a score of 536 compared to the Canadian average of 519 – and were on a par with many of the highest-performing countries and economies in the assessment.
  • On average across Canada, there was significant variation in mathematics performance according to gender, with boys outperforming girls. This pattern was similar in most other participating countries. In science, the performance of boys and girls was more equal.
  • In reading, girls were still well ahead of boys in Canada and internationally. The gap between boys and girls was smaller for students who did the assessment on computer.
  • In mathematics, Canadian results showed some differences by language of the school system: in most cases, students attending majority-language school systems outperformed students in minority-language school systems.
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Jeannette / December 4, 2013 at 16:52

    Evaluating change from one time to another using ranking cannot determine if a country is better or worse except relative to other countries. Do the numbers allow comparison of two scores for the same country at two points in time (i.e., two cohorts of 15 year-olds)?. If that comparison is possible, are Canadian mean scores lowering more than chance variability?

    • Leo Charbonneau / December 5, 2013 at 09:27

      Hello Jeannette,

      If I understand your question correctly, Canada is not only doing worse relative to other countries in mathematics, but also in absolute terms. If you look at pg. 30, Table 1.6, of CMEC’s report referenced above, you’ll see Canada’s math scores dropped from 532 in 2003 to 527 in 2006 and 2009, and then dropped again to 518 in 2012. That last drop, according to the report, was statistically significant.

      Page 41 of that same report (Figure 2.5) shows reading and science results for Canada over time. The scores dropped for both, although only the decrease in science performance was statistically significant between 2006 (534) and 2012 (525).

      Hope that helps.

  2. SC / December 9, 2013 at 20:01

    My take on this-
    1. Canada is doing pretty well in science and reading compared to other OECD nations.
    2. Our position in Maths is declining (no surprise to this 30-something who sees plenty of 20-something students with minimal arithmetic skills). Not sure if there is a magic bullet but going back to basics in arithmetic (multiplication tables and such) plus banning calculators till Senior High might be possible solutions.
    3. The ranking was a bit unfair- if you are going to compare with Shanghai and HK, you should take Toronto or Calgary, rather than all of Canada!
    4. Canada is head and shoulders above its traditional benchmarks/rivals- the US and the UK.

    • Léo Charbonneau / December 10, 2013 at 09:32

      Excellent summary, SC. I concur on all points.

  3. Marion Leithead / February 5, 2014 at 10:01

    Alberta Ed (Performance of Alberta Students on National and International Assessments) claims that in 2000 no countries had “results significantly higher than Alberta’s” (547) score in Math.
    …I cannot verify if it is true, but I want to know why in 2012, it looks like Alberta plunged to about 14th on the PISA 2012 (“Alberta Results in relation to other provinces and participating countries… Mathemantics”)
    chart (which by the way is not easy to read, and includes no actual numerical mean scores… Other sources, however give Alberta’s mean score to be 517, lower than Quebec’s, BCs and Canada’s average).

    I would like to find a reliable concise comparison of Alberta’s math performance from 2000 to 2012, with references as to how that compares to the other provinces, and other countries.

    Instead of being smug/complacent and bragging about “still being among the top countries,” Albertans would wish that Minister Johnson would take heed of upwards of 4000 Albertans who have signed a petition asking that Alberta Ed focus on, and insist on the mastery of core math skills in the elementary grades (instead of promoting the “discovering your own answer” by “guestimating” and trying to arrive at an acceptable answer by other time-consuming and circuitous routes.)

    We do our children a disservice by not providing excellent efficient instruction, proven, “best practice.”

    Alberta’s NEW “revised” K to Grade 9 Math Program of Study, is based on dated (1988-93) US discovery/ constructivist strategies that have been shown to be ineffective (check the US PISA math ratings). … And Alberta Ed (for whatever reason) is foolishly following in those flawed “discovery” footsteps, despite the protests and a 4000-plus on-line Petition against this strategy.

    What does it take to make the Education Ministry Officials “listen” to those who pay their salaries?
    How can we again provide a decent Math education which will equip and empower our students for success in whatever field they choose. . . (Not everyone in Alberta aspires to be an “Oil dude.”)

    ML looking for answers.

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