Declining test scores should teach policymakers about school closure damage

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Appeared in the Western Standard, January 1, 2024
Declining test scores should teach policymakers about school closure damage

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures the performance of 15-year-old students in math, reading and science around the world, recently released its latest results.

First, the bad news.

Because the latest PISA testing took place in 2022 after the worst of the COVID school disruptions (which included weeks of closures in every province), we can compare the new test results with pre-COVID results in 2018 and earlier.

Canada’s science scores dropped by 3 points from 2018, reading scores fell by 13 points, and math by a steep 15 points.

While these declines are similar to the average changes for high-income OECD countries, they remain troubling. In particular, the sharp decline in math scores continues a longer-term decline where scores have dropped 30 points from 2006 to 2022. Half of this decline occurred between 2018 and 2022, a stunning indictment of the academic cost of extended school closures.

More broadly, all G7 countries (except Japan) had lower scores (compared to 2018) in all three subjects. The United States suffered a significant 13-point loss in math similar to Canada, but only a 1-point loss in reading and 3-point loss in science. Even so, the Canadian and American declines seem relatively modest when compared to the collapses in math scores in France (21-point decline) and Germany (25-point decline). To place these changes in broader perspective, no previous declines in the averages for high-income OECD countries have ever exceeded 4 points in math or 5 points in reading from one test year to the next.

Now the good news. Because all countries saw declines, Canada retained its position as a top-scoring country, ranking 8th in reading and science and 9th in math among the 81 participants. And Canada moved up the international rankings from 12th to 9th in math, although we slipped from 6th position to 8th in reading, holding onto 8th position in science.

But clearly, the rankings tell only part of the story. Canadian parents care about Canadian kids, and our test scores, particularly in math, have declined.

There’s obviously a lot more to education than standardized tests and rankings. Nevertheless, while it’s reassuring to see young Canadians doing well compared to their peers around the world, it’s disturbing to see how the extended school closures had such a negative impact on them all.

It really shouldn’t be a surprise that closing schools for extended periods will hurt student learning, even with remote learning alternatives. In the end, there’s no substitute for good instruction by good teachers in good schools. The next time policymakers consider closing schools for any extended period, they should revisit the post-COVID PISA results.