Canadian students slip in global ranking of math, science, reading skills

Canadian students continue to slip in international rankings of math, science and reading skills, but the country can boast of an education system that lessens differences of social class and gaps between immigrant and native-born students.

Canada sat 10th among 70 countries in math skills in 2009, down from seventh place three years earlier, according to the largest international survey of its kind. The country ranked eighth in science scores, down from third in 2006, and sixth in reading skills, sliding from fourth place three years earlier.

“The 2009 performance of Canada is a little bit disappointing,” says Bernard Hugonnier, deputy-director of education with the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “At the same time, you are still much above the OECD average.”

The rankings were released Tuesday, the latest from OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Now in its fourth round, PISA is conducted every three years, assessing 15-year-olds to see how well students nearing the end of secondary school are prepared for the modern world. The latest report surveyed more than half-a-million students — including 22,000 Canadian students — from 70 countries that together represent nearly 90 per cent of the global economy.

Five of the Top 10 countries overall are Asian, Hugonnier points out, including Shanghai-China, Singapore and Korea.

“It means there is something going on in Asia concerning education, and it’s because the value they attach to education is much greater in those countries,” he says.

In reading skills, girls outperformed boys in every participating country by the equivalent of half a grade on average. Boys outperform girls in math by a narrower gap, and on science by a negligible margin, the report finds. Girls and boys are about equally represented among the top-performing students.

Canada has seen a 10-point decline in reading scores over the last decade, a five-point drop in math scores since 2003 and a five-point decline in science scores since 2006, though Hugonnier points out the latter two changes are too small to be considered statistically significant. (The report provides different time frames for comparison because the three subject assessments were introduced at different times.)

Each round of PISA reports focuses on a different subject and the latest takes an in-depth look at reading skills.

There’s no need for Canada to fret about its overall standings, Hugonnier says, but it’s worth noting what’s happening at each end of the reading spectrum.

The proportion of Canadian students with inadequate reading skills “to participate actively and productively in life” now sits at 10.3 per cent, up from 9.6 per cent a decade ago, while the proportion of “top performers” has fallen from 16.8 to 12.8 per cent over the same period.

“You have more students with major difficulties; you have less students performing very well,” Hugonnier says.

Still, Canadian students remain well ahead of their counterparts in the United States, which ranked 17th, 23rd and 31st, respectively, in reading, science and math.

“We are living in a knowledge society, and a knowledge society means the best production factor is human capital, and human capital means education — and education means you have to check what your competitors are doing,” Hugonnier says.

“If your competitor is investing massively in education, like the case in Asian countries, they are increasing their competitiveness for tomorrow, so it’s very important for you to know where you stand.”

The PISA results suggest Canada excels in the ability of its education system to even the playing field for different students.

Across OECD member countries, an average of 14 per cent of student achievement can be attributed to socioeconomic status, but in Canada that variation is just 8.6 per cent based on reading scores, putting Canada in fourth place.

Canada is also ahead of the pack in mitigating differences between native-born students and those with an immigrant background, with the OECD average showing an 18-point difference and Canada’s just seven points, making the country second behind only Israel.

“You are facing a difficult situation because you are a vast country with scattered settlements and you have a lot of migrants — one of the highest percentages in your population — and yet you are doing very well,” Hugonnier says. “You have a lot of migrants not speaking English, and yet the difference in performance of natives and immigrants is quite small, so you are doing extremely well in terms of equity.”


Each round of PISA reports takes an in-depth look at one subject area, and the 2009 report focuses on reading skills. Here are some of its key findings:

– 68.9 per cent of Canadian 15-year-olds read for pleasure (the OECD average is 63.8 per cent)

– 81.6 per cent of Canadian girls read for pleasure, compared to 56.2 per cent of boys (the OECD average is 73.7 and 54.0, respectively)

– 37.3 Canadian student agreed with the statement, “I read only if I have to”

– 38.6 per cent agreed that “Reading is one of my favourite hobbies”

– 48.1 of Canadian students reported regularly reading magazines for pleasure, 14.4 per cent said the same about comic books, 42.0 per cent read fiction, 20.0 per cent read non-fiction and 47.9 per cent read newspapers

– 74.0 per cent of Canadian students say their teachers “really listen to what I have to say,” compared to 70.5 per cent a decade ago

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