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PISA results—a snapshot of schools in Canada

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PISA results—a snapshot of schools in Canada

Schools are so commonplace we tend to take them for granted. But COVID was a wake-up call. When governments across the country closed schools and disrupted learning, many families rediscovered the important contributions schools make to modern society.

Just what are schools expected to do? Did Canadian schools live up to these expectations before the pandemic upheaval?

The classic sociological answer identifies five interrelated key functions of schools—education, socialization, care, selection and certification. Most COVID measures interfered with all of them. School closures had immediate devasting impacts on the care function, denying children and their families the previously reliable taken-for-granted access to the publicly-subsidized safe harbours of neighbourhood schools.

The other functions are all interrelated facets of education in modern societies. At root, schools are expected to teach important, incrementally increasing, specialized knowledge and skills to eligible students. Eligibility can be a complex and contentious issue, but equality of opportunity for all competent candidates remains a key guiding principle, especially in public elementary and secondary schools.

According to results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Canada’s schools satisfying these fundamental expectations. PISA has been testing the academic performance of randomly sampled Grade 10 students in reading, math and science every three years since 2000. Canadian students have attained high average scores in each subject in all test years, placing 6th in reading, 8th in science and 12th in math among 78 participating countries in the most recent pre-COVID 2018 results.

While test results from samples of students in single grades offer limited accounts of the accomplishments of schools, PISA tests measure life-relevant knowledge and skills in core subjects among young people who’ve completed elementary school and stand poised to begin more demanding programs leading to employment credentials. And despite their limitations, PISA results provide the most comprehensive set of school performance and context measures available including estimates of the socioeconomic status of participating students, which illuminate how well schools meet the equality of opportunity expectation. Here, Canadian schools do a comparatively good job of equalizing education opportunities for disadvantaged students.

Students from financially secure homes with well-educated parents typically do well in school whereas those from more disadvantaged homes tend to do less well. Yet some excel in the classroom. PISA describes such students as “resilient.” As discussed in my new study published by the Fraser Institute, Canadian schools have commendably high numbers of resilient students.

In the latest PISA results from 2018, an average of 11.8 per cent students in G7 countries were academically resilient. Canada (13.9 per cent) ranked second with a score statistically indistinguishable from first-place United Kingdom (14 per cent).

As shown by the PISA results to-date, Canada’s schools were performing their fundamental functions well pre-COVID. The results of the next PISA assessment, available in 2023, will provide insight into the comparative effects of school closures and learning disruptions during the pandemic, on both the instructional and social equity work of Canadian schools.

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