Reading and math scores plummet across Canada after COVID school closures

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, December 20, 2023
Reading and math scores plummet across Canada after COVID school closures

COVID school closures took a heavy toll on student learning. For parents in Canada, that’s the main takeaway from the new Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test results, which show substantial declines from 2018 pre-pandemic results in reading and math among 15-year-olds (the only age that participates in PISA testing).

Among high-income OECD countries, average PISA scores dropped by an unprecedented 10 points in reading and 15 points in math. Canada’s losses were similar, with a drop of 13 points in reading and 15 points in math. For context, a 20-point decline in test scores equals roughly one year of learning loss.

How did the provinces do? This is an important question, as we don’t have a national education system in Canada.

Reading scores dropped in all provinces, with the worst decline in Newfoundland and Labrador (34 points) followed by Nova Scotia (27 points), New Brunswick (20 points), Quebec (18 points), Saskatchewan (15 points), Ontario (12 points), British Columbia and Manitoba (8 points), and Prince Edward Island and Alberta (7 points).

A similar pattern emerges in math, with Newfoundland and Labrador again suffering the greatest decline (29 points) followed by Nova Scotia (24 points), New Brunswick (23 points), Quebec and Ontario (18 points), Saskatchewan (17points), Manitoba (12 points), P.E.I. (9 points), B.C. (8 points) and Alberta (7 points).

In science, the news was somewhat better, with some provinces modestly improving and only Nova Scotia (16 points) and Newfoundland and Labrador (15 points) dropping by more than 10 points. Clearly, with the exception of P.E.I., the Atlantic provinces had the greatest losses between 2018 pre-pandemic and 2022 post-pandemic test scores.

Despite the broad harvest of decline across Canada, the distribution of provincial scores remains similar to earlier results. As in 2018 and earlier, the four largest provinces—Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Alberta—have the highest scores in all three subjects. Quebec continues to be the highest-scoring province in math, with overlapping margins of error for the other large provinces. Math scores for the remaining provinces cluster together at a significantly lower level, with P.E.I. in the middle and Newfoundland and Labrador replacing Manitoba in last place.

Reading and science scores follow a similar pattern, but with Alberta in pole position with significantly higher scores in both subjects, the other larger provinces forming a second rank cluster, and the remaining provinces a third.

The new PISA results include a rich body of information on both the extent and nature of the pandemic disruptions, which casts revealing light on the unprecedented collapse in test scores. But crucially, the large differences in score declines between the provinces cannot be simply explained by how long schools were closed. The extent and quality of learning alternatives, teacher and parental support, and socio-economic status also played important roles.

While it will take time to better understand how some provinces and schools weathered the pandemic disruptions better than others, the drops in PISA test scores underscore the challenges students and teachers face today, especially in the hardest hit provinces.

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