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Overall average provincial scores drop in all three PISA test subjects

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Overall average provincial scores drop in all three PISA test subjects

Canadian teens once again performed well in the latest international tests of reading, math and science—but crucially, did less well than in previous assessments.

Some 600,000 students in 79 countries took the mainly computer-based tests as part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Initiated by the OECD in 2000 and administered every three years, PISA is the gold standard for comparing school and student performance around the world.

Globally, the major headlines for the 2018 results (released earlier this week) are the rise of China and the United States, but for different reasons.

To facilitate comparisons, PISA standardizes test scores around an average of 500 score points. Students in the Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Zhejiang regions in China had by far the highest average scores in reading (555), math (591) and science (590), vaulting over previously dominant Singapore, which was relegated to second place. Macao and Hong Kong, other Chinese territories, were also in the top four places in reading and math.

Average scores in the United States actually remained statistically similar to 2015, but the country moved up the international ranks because of declining scores elsewhere. In reading, for example, the U.S. moved from 24th place in 2015 to 13th place in 2018, although the average score increased by just eight points.

Over the same period, average reading scores declined in five G7 countries including Canada.

Despite placing high in the international rankings, Canada fell from third place in reading in 2015 (with a score of 527) to sixth (520) place in 2018, from seventh (528) to eighth place (518) in science, and from 10th (516) to 12th (512) in math. Over the longer-term, PISA has classified Canada’s performance as being “flat” in reading and “steadily negative” in math and science.

But Canada, of course, doesn’t really have a national education system. Each province has exclusive control of its own schools. Hence stagnant and declining performance at the national level is driven by varying contributions from each province.

In previous PISA cycles, British Columbia was a prominent jewel in Canada’s education crown. In 2015, the province ranked first in reading (536), second (539) after Alberta (541) in science, and second (522) after Quebec (544) in math. Three years later B.C. has fallen to fourth place in reading (519), science (517) and math (504)—a disturbing collapse.

A similar although not as extreme pattern is evident in all but three other provinces. Newfoundland and Labrador and Saskatchewan experienced small gains in all three subjects between 2015 and 2018, as did Ontario in math. Overall, though, average provincial scores declined by five points in math, six points in reading and nine points in science.

One big takeaway from the PISA results is emergent Asian (and some central European countries such as Estonia, Poland and Serbia) are improving their education performance while many mature economies are not. This is the case in Canada, despite a decade of increased funding for public schools in all provinces as clearly shown in a recent Fraser Institute study.

It’s time for the provinces to heed other lessons from PISA and adopt smarter ways of funding schools instead of blindly escalating funding year after year.

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