Measuring Up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study

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The Performance of Canada's Youth in Science, Reading and Mathematics

PISA 2006 First Results for Canadians aged 15


In the spring of 2006, Canadian students participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) which seeks to measure how well young adults, at age 15, are prepared to meet the challenges of today's knowledge societies. PISA was first conducted in 2000 with an emphasis on reading achievement and again in 2003 with an emphasis on mathematics achievement. The third survey of PISA conducted in 2006 completes the first set of three-yearly assessment surveys of knowledge and skills with a focus on science achievement. This report summarizes the results for Canada and the provinces in an international context.

The Programme for International Student Assessment
Why do PISA?
Why did Canada participate?
What is PISA 2006?
Objectives and organization of the report

The Programme for International Student Assessment

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a collaborative effort among member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). PISA is designed to provide policy-oriented international indicators of the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students1 and sheds light on a range of factors that contribute to successful students, schools and education systems. It measures skills that are generally recognized as key outcomes of the educational process. The assessment focuses on young people's ability to use their knowledge and skills to meet real life challenges. These skills are believed to be prerequisites to efficient learning in adulthood and for full participation in society.

PISA has brought significant public and educational attention to international assessment and related studies by generating data to enhance the ability of policy makers to make decisions based on evidence. In Canada, it is carried out through a partnership consisting of Human Resources and Social Development Canada, the Council of Ministers of Education Canada and Statistics Canada.

The project began in 2000 and focuses on the capabilities of 15-year-olds as they near the end of compulsory education. It reports on reading literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy every three years and provides a more detailed look at each domain in the years when it is the major focus. For example, science was the major domain of PISA in 2006 when the focus was on both overall (or combined) scientific literacy and three scientific sub-domains (identifying scientific issues, explaining phenomena scientifically and using scientific evidence). As minor domains in PISA 2006, only single measures of reading and mathematics were available. On the other hand, more detailed information was available on reading and reading sub-domains in 2000 and mathematics and mathematics sub-domains in 2003.

Box 1

The PISA Assessment Domains

PISA measures three domains: mathematical literacy, reading literacy, and scientific literacy. The domains were defined as follows by international experts who agreed that the emphasis should be placed on functional knowledge and skills that allow active participation in society.

Scientific literacy (hereafter referred to as science):

An individual's scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge to identify questions, to acquire new knowledge, to explain scientific phenomena, and to draw evidence based conclusions about science-related issues, understanding of the characteristic features of science as a form of human knowledge and enquiry, awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual, and cultural environments, and willingness to engage in science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.

Reading literacy (hereafter referred to as reading):

An individual's capacity to understand, use and reflect on written texts, in order to achieve one's goals, to develop one's knowledge and potential and to participate in society.

Mathematical literacy (hereafter referred to as mathematics):

An individual's capacity to identify and understand the role that mathematics plays in the world, to make well-founded judgements and to use and engage with mathematics in ways that meet the needs of that individual's life as a constructive, concerned and reflective citizen.

Why do PISA?

The skills and knowledge that individuals bring to their jobs, to further studies and to our society, plays an important role in determining our economic success and our overall quality of life. The importance of skills and knowledge is expected to continue to grow. The shift to knowledge and information intensive industries, to communication and production technologies, to falling trade barriers and to the globalization of markets have precipitated increases in the knowledge and skills that the present and future economy requires. These include a rising demand for a strong set of foundation skills upon which further learning is built.

Elementary and secondary education systems play a central role in laying a solid base upon which subsequent knowledge and skills can be developed. Students leaving secondary education without a strong foundation may experience difficulty accessing the postsecondary education system and the labour market and they may benefit less when learning opportunities are presented later in life. Without the tools needed to be effective learners throughout their lives, these individuals with limited skills risk economic and social marginalization.

Governments in industrialized countries have devoted large portions of their budgets to provide high quality universal elementary and secondary schooling. Given these investments, governments are interested in the relative effectiveness of their education systems. To address these issues, member governments of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) developed a common tool to improve their understanding of what makes young people—and education systems as a whole—successful. This tool is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Information gathered through PISA enables a thorough comparative analysis of the performance of students near the end of their compulsory education. PISA also permits exploration of the ways that achievement varies across different social and economic groups and the factors that influence their level and distribution within and among countries.

Why did Canada participate?

Canada's participation in PISA 2006 stems from many of the same questions motivating other participating countries. Canada invests significant public resources in the provision of elementary and secondary education. Canadians are interested in the quality of education provided to their youth by elementary and secondary schools. How can expenditures be directed to the achievement of higher levels of knowledge and skills upon which lifelong learning is founded and to potentially reduce social inequality in life outcomes?

Canada's economy is also evolving rapidly. Between 2006 and 2015, the fastest labour market growth is among occupations requiring higher skills.2 Even employees in traditional occupations are expected to upgrade their knowledge and skills to meet the rising demands of new organisational structures and production technologies. Elementary and secondary education systems play a key role in generating the supply of skills to meet this demand. The competencies acquired by the end of compulsory schooling provide individuals with the essential foundation necessary to further develop human capital.

Questions about educational effectiveness can be partly answered with data on the average performance of Canada's youth. However, two other questions with respect to equity can only be answered by examining the distribution of competencies: Who are the students at the lowest levels? Do certain groups or regions appear to be at greater risk? These are important questions because, among other things, acquisition of knowledge and skills during compulsory schooling influences access to postsecondary education, eventual success in the labour market and the effectiveness of continuous, lifelong learning.

What is PISA 2006?

Fifty-seven countries participated in PISA 2006, including all 30 OECD countries3. Between 5,000 and 10,000 students aged 15 from at least 150 schools were typically tested in each country. In Canada, approximately 22,000 15-year-olds from about 1,000 schools participated across the ten provinces4. The large Canadian sample was required to produce reliable estimates representative of each province and for both French and English language school systems in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.

The 2006 PISA assessment was administered in schools, during regular school hours in April and May 2006. This assessment was a two hour paper-and-pencil lasting. Students also completed a 20-minute student background questionnaire providing information about themselves and their home and a 10-minute questionnaire on information technology and communications, while school principals completed a 20-minute questionnaire about their schools. As part of PISA 2006, national options could also be implemented. Canada chose to add a 5-minute student questionnaire to collect more information on the school experiences of 15-year-olds, their work activities and their relationships with others.

Box 2

Overview of PISA 2006
  International Canada
Participating countries/provinces • 57 countries • 10 provinces
Population • Youth aged 15  • Same
Number of participating students • Between 5,000 and 10,000 per country with some exceptions for a total of close to 400,000 students • Approximately 22,000 students
Domains • Major: science
• Minor: reading and mathematics
• Same
Amount of testing time devoted to domains • 390 minutes of testing material organized into different combinations of test booklets 120 minutes in length
• 210 minutes devoted to science
• 60 minutes each devoted to reading, mathematics
• Same
Languages in which the test was administered • 43 languages • English and French
International assessment • Two hours of direct assessment of science, reading and mathematics
• Twenty minute contextual questionnaire administered to youth
• A school questionnaire administered to school principals
• Same
International options • Ten-minute optional questionnaire on information technology and communications administered to students
• Ten-minute optional questionnaire on educational career administered to students
• Ten-minute optional questionnaire on information technology and communication administered to students
National options • Grade based assessment 
• Other options were undertaken in a limited number of countries 
• Five minutes of additional questions administered to students regarding their school experiences, work activities and relationships with others.

Objectives and organization of the report

This report provides the first pan-Canadian results of the PISA 2006 assessment of science, reading and mathematics by presenting at the national and provincial results in order to complement the information presented in "Learning for Tomorrow's World - First Results from PISA 2006"5.  Results are compared to other participating countries and across Canadian provinces.

Chapter 1 provides information on the relative performance of Canadian 15-year-old students on the PISA 2006 assessment in science. It presents the average level of performance on the combined science scale as well as the three science sub-domains; the distribution of achievement scores and proficiency levels in science for Canada as a whole and for the provinces; and results for the English-language and French-language school systems. Chapter 2 discusses information on the mean performance of Canada and the provinces in reading and mathematics, compares results for the English-language and French-language school systems and examines change in performance over time. Chapter 3 examines the relationship between performance and selected student characteristics. Chapters 4 provides an overview of three key themes explored in PISA 2006 – student engagement in science, science and the environment and contexts for the learning of science. Finally, the major findings and opportunities for further study are discussed in the conclusion.


  1. OECD (1999), Measuring Student Knowledge and Skills: A New Framework for Assessment, Paris.
  2. Lapointe, Mario, Kevin Dunn, Nicolas Tremblay-Côté, Louis-Philippe Bergeron, and Luke Ignaczak (May 2007) Looking-Ahead: A 10-Year Outlook for the Canadian Labour Market (2006-2015), HRSDC, SP-615-10-06E .
  3. OECD countries include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, and United States. Partner countries are:Argentina, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Chinese Taipei, Columbia, Croatia, Estonia, Hong Kong – China, Indonesia, Israel, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Macao – China, Montenegro, Qatar, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia, Slovenia, Thailand, Tunisia, and Uruguay.
  4. No data were collected in the three territories and on First Nations schools.
  5. OECD (2007), PISA 2006: Science competencies for tomorrow's world. Paris.