A new international study ranks Canadian students among the top of the class in key subject areas, but there has been a noticeable decline over the years in math and science scores among the country's pupils.

Canada was among 65 countries and economies participating in the assessment by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which takes place every three years. Findings of the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment — or PISA — from 2012 were released Tuesday.

Canada released its own companion report, Measuring Up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study.

Measuring Up

More than 500,000 15-year-old students were tested on their knowledge and skills in three subject areas. About 21,000 Canadians from about 900 schools across the country's 10 provinces took part. (OECD/CMEC)

More than 500,000 15-year-old students were tested on their knowledge and skills in three subject areas. The primary focus was on mathematics with a smaller proportion of students assessed in reading and science. Around 21,000 Canadians from about 900 schools across the country's 10 provinces took part. Canada's three territories elected not to participate.

Scores are taken from students assessed in each OECD country and pooled together and set at an average of 500 points, which is the baseline used for the study.

The average estimated score in math was 494. Canada had 518. Shanghai, China, topped the list in math with an average of 613. Canada was also outperformed by Singapore, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Macau, Japan, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

Canada had an average score of 523 in reading and 525 in science — well above the OECD averages of 496 and 501, respectively.

Shanghai topped the list in both reading and science with 570 and 580, respectively. Canada was outperformed in both subjects by Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Korea. Finland and Estonia also fared better than Canada in science.

While Canada was among the high-level achievers, performance of the country's 15-year-olds in math has declined, with a 14-point dip in the past nine years. While performance in reading has remained relatively stable, the decline in science performance was "statistically significant," dipping from an average of 534 in 2006 and 529 in 2009.

Along gender lines, boys continued to outperform girls in math across most participating countries — including Canada — while girls placed ahead of boys in Canada and internationally in reading. The performance was similar among boys and girls in science.

'Slowly trending down'

Looking at Canada's scores in the context of being in the top 10 or 15th percentile is "good news," said Alberta Education Minister Jeff Johnson, chair of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC). But he acknowledged Canada has been "slowly trending down" as have a number of other nations who have been high performers, including New Zealand, Sweden and Finland.

Johnson said it's also important to keep in mind that among countries and economic regions tested, high-achieving students in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau came from one country — China.

"If you look at countries on the whole, more strictly speaking, our numbers would even be higher. Still, very respectable numbers. But the one that we're paying extra attention to is the math, because it's such a fundamental skill for the 21st century and because that's the area that the results have been trending downward on."

Johnson said there are several schools of thought about potential reasons for the decline in math scores, adding that he doesn't think there's "any one single bullet." However, what should be the point of discussion and focus surrounds the money and efforts needed to bolster training for educators, he noted.

"It seems from the study … some of the jurisdictions from around the world that are doing well spend more resources on teacher quality, teacher training and making sure that their math teachers have more specialized training in math and that is paying on," he added. "We're looking at those best practices all over, and not only from outside Canada but from within Canada as well."

How math is taught

Anna Stokke, associate professor of mathematics at the University of Winnipeg, has been an advocate for more teacher training in math and a change in math curriculum.

She said she was not surprised by the waning results because of a teaching philosophy that moved kids away from “memorizing timetables and doing basic tasks like adding in columns and long division.”

“We see greater declines in some provinces than others,” Stokke said in an interview with CBC’s Lang & O’Leary Exchange.

“For instance, Manitoba and Alberta have really seen the greatest decline, and they have both adopted the ‘inquiry-based’ curriculum, which is really quite a radical curriculum. Manitoba is now moving away from that a bit. They’re putting back some of the basic skills that have been taken out of the curriculum previously.”

Stokke says what’s required is a return to “pencil and paper math,” which really requires practice.

"What happens is children aren’t getting the skills to do more difficult math, so they’re struggling when they get to later concepts, because math is very cumulative," she said. 

Results vary

At the provincial level, only students in Quebec exceeded the Canadian average. Recognition of Quebec's performance was one of the reasons the province presented and led discussions when CMEC met last July in Nunavut, said Johnson. The approach to numeracy math was one of the items of discussion among the country's education ministers, he noted.

"Every jurisdiction is going to tackle this potentially a little bit differently and not every jurisdiction in Canada has the same results, either," he said.

"It's an ongoing process, a process of continuing improvement."

Johnson said there "a couple of silver linings" in the report: first, that Canadian students are still performing well and second, that equity among the results remains "very high."

"In Canada, it matters less who your parents were and what neighbourhood you live in than it does in many of the other countries around the world."