Western provinces see steep declines in PISA results

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Appeared in the Edmonton Sun, September 7, 2022
Western provinces see steep declines in PISA results

While Canada has usually done well in the OECD Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests Grade 10 students every three years, our most recent scores have been declining due largely to declines in the west.

In its report on the most recent results (2018), PISA identified Canada as the only G7 country with “steadily declining” scores in math and science. Specifically, from 2006 to 2018, Canada’s PISA score for math declined by 15 points, for science by 17 points, but for reading by only 7 points. For comparison, scores in the remaining G7 countries fell by just 3.5 points in science but increased by an average of 6 points in both math and reading.

But as discussed in my new study published by the Fraser Institute, Canada’s declines are not equally distributed across the country, being markedly more severe in some provinces.

Score declines were smallest in the central and Atlantic provinces. For example, Quebec’s outstanding performance in math produced a loss of just 4 score points from 2003 to 2018, together with a loss of only 9 points in science from 2006 to 2018. Ontario’s steady performance in reading produced a relatively small drop of 9 points over the 18 years from 2000 to 2018, with Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia each losing just 5 points in reading.

In stark contrast score declines were much greater in the western provinces, with Manitoba experiencing the greatest losses in each subject over these time spans—35 points in reading, 34 in science and 46 in math, more than double the national decline in each subject.

Alberta and British Columbia suffered the second- and third-greatest score declines in math, with losses of 38 and 34 score points respectively. B.C. also had the second-largest decline in science, with a loss of 22 points.

Alberta’s scores declined steadily in each subject. B.C.’s scores followed more variable paths over time, with steep downturns in recent years especially in math where the average score took a shocking 18-point drop from 2015 to 2018.

Their large score declines in math saw Alberta and B.C. slip down the provincial rankings over time, with Alberta eventually landing in third place after coming first in 2003, and B.C. falling from second place to fourth with Quebec and Ontario moving into second and third respectively.

Alberta’s more modest score decline in reading allowed that province to retain first place nationally, while B.C. slipped from second to third, Ontario’s smaller score decline moving it into second place. A similar pattern occurred in science, but while Alberta again retained first place B.C. slipped from second to fourth.

Overall, the western provinces made greater contributions to Canada’s declining PISA scores. Whether this will continue in the future remains to be seen. Given the anticipated effects of pandemic-related school closures and remote instruction on student learning, further declines are likely.