Canada’s waning math scores raise concern for global competitiveness

Canadian students are lagging behind when it comes to a couple key educational keystones, according to a new study that measures international success. And that could end up hurting our ability to compete internationally.

Canada was among 65 countries measured as part of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and its ongoing Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

PISA findings are compiled and released every three years and, make no mistake, Canada ranks high on the list. Just not as high as it used to rank.

The study ranks Canadian students among the best in several key areas but there has been a decline in Canadian math scores – a category seen as integral to future high-tech industries.

The OECD tested more than 510,000 students in 65 countries and economies in math, reading and science. In Canada, around 21,000 students from 900 difference schools were tested. The scores were tabulated and each country was given a score against a baseline of 500.

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Average scores, paper-based mathematics

1. Shanghai-China – 613
2. Singapore – 573
3. Hong Kong – China – 561
4. Chinese Taipei – 560
5. Korea – 554
6. Macao-China – 538
7. Japan – 536
8. Liechtenstein – 535
9. Switzerland – 531
10. The Netherlands – 523
11. Estonia – 521
12. Finland – 519
13. Canada – 518

In math, where the average international score was found to be 494, Canada scored 518.

Most notably, Canada dropped out of the top 10 in math. We now rank 13th in the world, down three spots from 2009, and a total of six spots since 2006. Shanghai scored the highest with 613, with Singapore’s 573 and Hong Kong’s 561 rounding out the top three.

Also worth noting is that Canada’s math score has dropped 14 points since PISA began in 2000. This suggests that Canada is not just lagging compared to international competitors, but compared to its own benchmarks as well.

Canada ranked similarly in science and somewhat better in reading, but the OECD put the majority of its focus on math.

"Math proficiency is a strong predictor of positive outcomes for young adults. It influences their ability to participate in post-secondary education and their expected future earnings," the report stated.

Canada's Council of Ministers of Education released its own report on the PISA results, suggesting that Canadian students "show high levels of achievement" in all categories.

A statement from Alberta's Education Minister Jeff Johnson, chair of CMEC, painted the math scores in a positive light.

"Mathematics is an essential requirement for an information- and technology-rich economy and society. Our results show that young Canadians are completing their high-school education with the numeracy skills they need to succeed," he said in a statement.

In an interview with the Canadian Press, Johnson said Canada should increase funding to teacher training and focus on specialized math training.

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Provincial results in paper-based mathematics

Quebec – 536
British Columbia – 522
Canada – 518
Alberta – 517
Ontario – 514
Saskatchewan – 506
New Brunswick – 502
Nova Scotia – 497
Manitoba – 492
Newfoundland – 490
P.E.I. – 479

Those points were emphasized recently in a speech by John Manley, President of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE). The CCCE announced recently that Canada’s declining performance in international surveys was a concern, specifically noting Canada’s waning PISA scores.

In a speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto at the end of November, Manley said it raised serious questions about Canada’s preparedness for an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

“[A]s a Canadian, what really troubles me is the growing body of evidence that shows Canada is falling behind when it comes to equipping its citizens with the broad knowledge and cross-cutting skills that are required to succeed in life, and in an increasingly competitive global economy,” Manley said, according to a copy of his speech.

"It's time to stop congratulating ourselves on the quality of our primary, secondary and post-secondary educations systems, and face up to the fact that our performance in international rankings is getting worse, not better."

Lagging behind international competition in a report is one thing, but when the factors that attribute to that cause actual concern for business leaders, it is another story altogether.

The tech industry and knowledge-based economies are growing, and Canada’s mastery of the basics in those fields needs to improve. We may remain near the top of the list, but if we’re not improving we risk being left behind.

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