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According to the report Spotlight on Science Learning 2013, less than 50 per cent of Canadian high school students graduate with senior courses in science, technology, engineering and math at a time when 70 per cent of Canada's top jobs require an education in those fields. (iStock)

Canadians scored “significantly below the average” on a numeracy test compared with 24 countries, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reported Tuesday, the same day another report concluded that Canada’s high math and science dropout rates are costly for the Canadian economy.

The OECD released its first survey of adult skills Tuesday, measuring the literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills of those aged 16 to 65 in 24 countries, including 27,000 people in Canada.

While Canadians scored far above average at problem solving in technology-rich environments and their average literacy score was around the average of OECD countries, their mean numeracy score was “significantly below the average,” the OECD said, putting Canada 13th out of 21 countries.

The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, described the average score as “slightly below the OECD average,” but acknowledged the results suggested “this is one area that could be targeted by policymakers for improvement.

More than half of high schoolers drop science, math

Meanwhile, Canadians are paying a heavy price for the fact that less than 50 per cent of Canadian high school students graduate with senior courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) at a time when 70 per cent of Canada’s top jobs require an education in those fields, said report released by the science education advocacy group Let’s Talk Science and the pharmaceutical company Amgen Canada. 

Spotlight on Science Learning 2013 compiles publicly available information about individual and societal costs of students dropping out STEM courses early.

One of the key findings was that without math and science, students’ career choices and even their post-secondary training opportunities were severely limited.

“Some of things that really surprised me were the careers that are non-traditional STEM careers that require science and math backgrounds,” said Bonnie Schmidt, president of Let’s Talk Science, citing culinary arts, hairstylist, dance and early childhood education.

Even though most provinces only require math and science courses until Grade 10, the report found students without Grade 12 math could expect to be excluded from 40 to 75 per cent of programs at Canadian universities, and students without Grade 11 could expect to be excluded from half of community college programs.

Many grads must return to high school

Schmidt said that means tens of thousands of high school graduates go back to high school each year – 20,000 in Ontario alone – to make up senior math and science courses. Taxypayers paid on $12,600 on average to support each student in publicly funded schools between 2011 and 2012, suggesting that the cost of so many graduates going back to high school could be in the hundreds of millions.

The report found that many skilled trades require math and science, and  that math- and science-heavy trades had an especially low number of female trade apprentices.

“Social costs really do come when we’re not engaging all the population,” Schmidt said, adding that the study found Ontario alone is losing about $24 billion a year in economic activity because it can’t fill all its skilled trades positions.

The report offers a number of recommendations, including:

  • Considering changes to course requirements for high school graduation – Schmidt believes the government should consider making math and science compulsory for longer.
  • Making students more aware of their lost options when they drop math and science courses.
  • Presenting science, technology, engineering and math in more integrated and relevant ways, such as involving industry.