This was written by the Alberta Teachers' Association and first appeared here.
by the Alberta Teachers' Association
Governments around the world frequently use PISA results to “weigh and measure” the performance of their education systems. Ministers of education in Canada also use the data to benchmark their school systems over time.
How did Canada and Alberta do?
The 2012 report ranked Canada 13th in mathematics, 11th in science and 8th in reading, although each result placed Canada within a cluster of countries whose marks were not statistically different. The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada released a parallel report showing that Alberta is at the national average for mathematics and reading and above average for science. The report also shows that, if Alberta were ranked as a nation, it would be tied statistically for 10th place in mathematics and 4th place in science. The results demonstrate a decline for Alberta, which has traditionally placed near the top of the international scales.
Canada’s continued high ranking has not stopped the local and national media from expressing anxiety about the mathematics scores and speculating on possible reasons for the decline. Alberta’s raw score in mathematics has declined by 6 per cent over the past 12 years, but performance has deteriorated slightly over all OECD countries during the same period. Among high-performing countries, only Macao-China, Poland and Germany have improved their mathematics scores over the past four PISA cycles.
Is there good news for Canada?
Besides continuing to be one of the top-ranked countries in the OECD in all three subjects, Canada is one of a handful of countries that combine high levels of performance with equity in educational opportunities for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds. In the report, OECD observes that students from countries in which wealth in more equitably distributed tend to perform better in mathematics Inequity in educational opportunities can produce differences in student performance that amount to as much as seven years of schooling.
The report also singles Canada out for having teachers who promote the development of complex problem-solving skills (see infographic page 3). A significant majority of Canadian students stated that their teachers present problems for which there is no immediately obvious solution and that require extensive thought.
What’s happening internationally?
It is worth noting that the education systems that ranked highest on the 2012 PISA results—Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei and Korea—are extremely test-centric and math focused. For that reason, they traditionally perform well on international standardized tests, especially in mathematics.
The reason that some countries improved in the 2012 PISA rankings may have to do with the test’s new-found ability to measure the impact of private tutoring on students’ performance. Some of the highest-ranking countries on the 2012 PISA are estimated to spend between $1,000 and $9,000 USD on private tutoring per student.
The Brooking’s Institute reports that, in top-ranked Shanghai, parents spend an average of $1,000 annually on English and mathematics tutors and that, during the high school years, the amount jumps to $5,000. In fifth-ranked Korea, 74 per cent of students received private after-school instruction in academies called hagwons. Parents spent an average cost of $2,600 per student per year on the academies. Private tutoring is also quite popular in Singapore and Japan. A recent article in Business Weekfeatured a discussion with a Japanese mother who sent her 11-year-old son to a Juku for four hours a night, four days a week, to prepare him for his junior high entrance exams. The cost of this tutoring was $9,200 per year.
According to a study by the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), one-third of Canadian parents have hired a private tutor or tutoring company for their child. In most cases, the students involved were already average or high achievers.
Implications for the future
Focusing on external rankings based on standardized tests may draw attention to students whose performance is marginal and increase the demand for private tutoring. The CCL study suggests that, during the 1990s, the number of private tutoring companies in major Canadian cities grew by between 200 and 500 per cent. Digital tutoring and adaptive learning systems are playing an increasingly dominant role in the tutoring industry in North America. In 2013, Dreambox Learning Inc., a technology company based in the United States, claimed that its intelligent adaptive learning system was as effective as human tutoring in accelerating math teaching and learning. For countries attempting to achieve excellence through equity, tutoring—because it is available only to the more affluent—may actually exacerbate disparities.
Recommendations for Canada
The PISA report includes recommendations for countries like Canada in which mathematics performance is only weakly related to socioeconomic status and in which socioeconomic groups tend to perform at nearly the same level. The report recommends that such countries should strive to improve performance across the board by changing their curricula and instructional systems and by improving the quality of their teachers. This recommendation is likely behind Education Minister Jeff Johnson’s response to the 2012 PISA. The report suggests that teaching quality can be improved “by requiring more qualifications to earn a teaching licence, providing incentives for high-achieving students to enter the profession, increasing salaries to make the profession more attractive and to retain more teachers, and/or offering incentives for teachers to engage in in-service teacher-training programmes.”
Started in 2000, PISA is administered every three years. The subject of focus in each cycle rotates among reading, mathematics and science. PISA 2012, the fifth iteration of the testing program, focused on mathematics. Approximately 2,500 Alberta students from 100 schools took the tests.