How are Canadian students performing in the strategically important subject of mathematics? A new study done by Fraser Institute says students in every province recorded declining results in international math tests from 2003 to 2018,

“Mathematics holds a position of strategic importance in the school curriculum, especially in our increasingly digital world, which makes these signs of declining math performance by Canadian students all the more worrisome,” said Derek Allison, professor Emeritus at the University of Western Ontario, a Fraser Institute senior fellow and co-author of Math Performance in Canada.

Conducted every three years, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the most extensive and widely accepted measure of academic proficiency among lower secondary school students around the world.

Analysing PISA data over the most recent 15-year period, the study finds that Canada overall fell from fifth highest score among the 37 participant countries in 2003 to 12th place among the 78 participating jurisdictions in the most recent 2018 assessment.

Crucially, PISA scores declined in every province over that period.

Declines were steepest in Manitoba with a decrease of 8.7 per cent, followed by Alberta (6.9 per cent), and British Columbia (6.3 per cent), and least severe in Prince Edward Island (2.6 per cent) and Ontario (3.2 per cent), with only a small non-statistically significant drop in Quebec’s scores 0.7 per cent).

The study also reviews trends in the provinces’ own measures of math performance against their own curriculum standards, as opposed to broader assessments used to measure performance internationally.

And even in the province’s own assessments, math scores have declined.

“By almost every measure, math scores are declining across the country,” said Vincent Geloso, a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute and co-author of the study.

“Policymakers and educators need to understand the severity of these declining math results, and should seriously consider ways to reverse the trend.”

Canada’s participation in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the only other international assessment, is limited to students in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. Assessments are conducted every four years. Results over the 2007 to 2015 period mirrored the PISA findings, with Grade 4 students in Quebec increasingly outperforming those in Ontario, who outperformed those in Alberta. Alberta did not participate in the Grade 8 assessment, where Quebec again outperformed Ontario. While the limited participation of provinces is unfortunate, Ontario and Quebec account for 63 percent of Canadian school enrolment, with Alberta bringing the total to three-quarters of total enrolments. Internationally, Quebec placed sixth in the 2015 TIMSS rankings, Ontario eleventh.

On balance, Canadian math scores are in decline overall, while the relative performance of the provinces has remained stable, with Quebec consistently outperforming all other provinces on all available comparative measures, and Ontario and Alberta occupying second and third place respectively. Results from the Pan-Canadian assessments paint a partially contradictory picture, showing increasing scores in all provinces except Ontario and Saskatchewan, but with a similar pattern of relative performance across the provinces. The differences in score trends are likely attributable to a focus on measuring the achievement of common Canadian curriculum expectations in the PCAP assessment, rather than the broader conception of mathematical proficiency underlying the international assessments.

Given that the provinces measure math performance against their own curriculum standards, consideration might usefully be given to adopting a broader conceptual framework for the Pan-Canadian assessment similar to those used in international assessments, study authors Allison and Geloso concluded.


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