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July 30, 2020 – Canada’s education system is facing three longer-term challenges beyond the current focus on teaching in a pandemic, says a new report from the C.D. Howe Institute.

In “Student Performance in PISA 2018: Nettlesome Questions for Canada,” author John Richards looks at data from OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and finds declining scores in core subjects and wide gaps in achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

The OECD’s PISA has become a universally respected means to assess student outcomes in reading, mathematics, and science in national school systems at the upper secondary level among students age 15.

Using PISA data from 2000-2018, Richards tracks performance of Canadian schools at the provincial level, and reveals statistically significant declines. “The most troubling PISA trends are in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the two provinces with the largest average subject declines from the benchmarking year to 2018,” says Richards. With the exception of Quebec, declines in mathematics have been statistically significant in all provinces. The largest mathematics decline has been in Manitoba.

The author also notes British Columbia’s status as one of the best-performing provinces is slipping — between the 2015 and 2018 PISA “rounds”, the province has seen a significant decline in all three subjects.

“An implicit goal of Canadian education policy is not only achieving high average scores, but also minimizing the expected decline in outcomes among students as socio-economic conditions decline from top to bottom groups,” writes Richards. While Canada performs well among G-7 countries in terms of the average reading scores among the bottom-quarter of students ranked by a socio-economic-cultural index, the Canadian top-to-bottom outcome differences are nonetheless large.

Among provinces, the lowest average scores for reading by the bottom socio-economic quarter exist in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick. Those provinces’ scores are also lowest for advantaged students in the respective provincial top socio-economic quarter. Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia generally occupy the highest rankings for both the top- and bottom-quarter results.

Although Canada’s performance is above the relevant OECD PISA averages in all three subjects, marginalized groups are shown to have weaker performance. To reduce gaps in outcomes, Richards calls on provinces to target low-income and disadvantaged communities through pre-school education and programs that provide intense tutoring and mentoring among secondary-school students.

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For more information contact: John Richards, Roger Phillips Scholar of Social Policy, C.D. Howe Institute, and Professor, Simon Fraser University; or Nancy Schlömer, Communications Officer, C.D. Howe Institute, phone: 416-865-1904 ext. 0247, email: nschlomer@cdhowe.org.

The C.D. Howe Institute is an independent not-for-profit research institute whose mission is to raise living standards by fostering economically sound public policies. Widely considered to be Canada's most influential think tank, the Institute is a trusted source of essential policy intelligence, distinguished by research that is nonpartisan, evidence-based and subject to definitive expert review.