Canadian 15-year-olds achieved respectable results while their American counterparts plummeted on the latest international rankings of mathematics, science and reading skills. On the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests released December 7, 2010, Canada finished 8th among 65 OECD countries in mathematics, 7th in science, and 5th in reading. Americans were stunned by the latest results, placing their students 31st in math, 23rd in science, and 17th in reading. Of greatest concern to North Americans was the fact that five of the top ten countries were Asian, led by Shanghai-China, Singapore, and Korea.
The Canadian PISA results were mildly disappointing because our scores have slipped since 2006 in relation to those of China and the other Asian countries. On the benchmark mathematics test, students in Shanghai scored 600, in Singapore 562, in Canada 527, in Germany 513, and in the United States only 487, ten points below the average. Canadian observers like Dr. Paul Cappon of the Canadian Council on Learning were sanguine about the latest results, but took some comfort in the finding that the Canadian system compares favourably in terms of lessening the differences of social class and closing gaps between immigrant and native-born students.
The abysmal American PISA rankings sparked sheer panic, prominently featured in the New York Times. Harking back to the Soviet Sputnik scare of the mid-1950s, Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, described it as “a Sputnik moment” for Americans. “Wow, I’m kind of stunned, I’m thinking Sputnik,” he said. “I’ve seen how relentless the Chinese are at accomplishing goals, and if they can do this in Shanghai in 2009, they can do it in 50 cities in 2019, and in 50 cities by 2029.”
Comparing PISA Reading Scores, 2000 to 2009
Measured at three-year intervals, the slips in Canada’s scores are small, barely statistically significant. But the competition is getting stiff. Between 2000 and 2009, when the most recent PISA was conducted, Canada posted a 10-point decline in reading scores while Korea managed a 15-point gain. Overall, Canada’s scores were 2 per cent lower. Just 40 per cent of the Canadian students who wrote the test last year achieved top scores in reading, compared with 45 per cent in 2000.
An analysis of Canada’s performance reveals that Prince Edward Island has become the first Canadian province to fall below the average of other OECD nations in students’ reading proficiency. Manitoba scraped by with a score nearly identical to the OECD average. New Brunswick was not much better. Most shocking of all, some 21% of PEI students cannot read properly, compared to 13% in 2000. Nova Scotia performed better in reading than in math and science, finishing in the middle of the Canadian pack.
The decline in performance of Canada’s high fliers is also worrisome. “ It’s not that the majority is doing worse, it’s that the elite is doing worse and we don’t have as many at that level,” Dr. Cappon told Globe and Mail Education reporter Kate Hammer. “That’s a source of concern.” Elite performers are an important economic driver in improving the system, he said.
Who leads the among Canadian provinces? No real surprises: Quebec emerged as a Canadian leader in math scores, while Albertans topped the science and reading tests.
Girls outperformed boys in reading tests in every country and in every Canadian province. That gap was greatest, close to 10 per cent of total scores, in PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador. “It’s time to take a leap and look at what strengths in reading we can bring in particular to our boys,” said Denis Mildon, a literacy expert and education consultant.
Looking on the bright side: Though Canada may be slipping in the overall ranks, our education system remains one of the most equitable in the world, as students perform well regardless of their background or where their school is located. Canada’s system also remains one of the most cost-effective, as we spend less per student than countries such as the United States and Britain but attain better academic outcomes.
The OECD’s tests are administered once every three years with an alternating focus on reading, math and science. For PISA 2009, close to 500,000 15-year-olds were tested, including 23,000 Canadian students from 1,000 schools from all the provinces.
International tests provide one of the few reliable yardsticks in trying to assess the quality of education and levels of student performance. The 2009 PISA results and rankings will be debated for years, dominated by a few key questions: Where does Canada really rank in terms of student performance levels? Why have China, Singapore and Korea surged ahead, leaving the United States behind in the “Race to the Top”? What explains the tremendous variations in PISA scores among the Canadian provinces? And will the PISA results produce a seismic shift in North America comparable to the Sputnik scare of fifty years ago?