Measuring up: Canadian results of the OECDPISA Study

    The Performance of Canada's Youth in Reading, Mathematics and Science: PISA 2009 First Results for Canadians Aged 15

    Measuring Up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study

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

    PISA 2009 First Results for Canadians Aged 15


    The skills and knowledge that individuals bring to their jobs, to further studies and to our society, play an important role in determining our economic success and our overall quality of life. The shift to a knowledge-based economy driven by advances in information and communication technologies, reduced trade barriers and the globalization of markets has precipitated changes in the type of knowledge and skills that the present and future economy requires. This includes 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, 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 schooling. Given these investments, they are interested in the relative effectiveness of their education systems. To address these issues, member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) along with partner countries 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) which seeks to measure the extent to which youth, at age 15, have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies.

    PISA was first conducted in 2000 with an emphasis on reading skills and again in 2003 and 2006 with an emphasis on mathematics and science achievement respectively. The implementation of PISA 2009 marks the beginning of a new cycle returning to an emphasis on reading achievement. In 2009 students who were assessed in PISA entered primary school at about the time of the first PISA survey in 2000. As such, the 2009 results provide an opportunity to relate policy changes to changes in learning outcomes using the benchmarks set by the original 2000 survey.

    The Programme for International Student Assessment
    Why did Canada participate in PISA?
    What is PISA 2009?
    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.

    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 achievement within and among countries.

    PISA has brought significant public and educational attention to international assessments and related studies by generating data to enhance the ability of policy makers to make decisions based on evidence. Canadian provinces have used information gathered from PISA along with other sources of information such as the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program2 (PCAP) to inform various education-related initiatives. In Canada, PISA is carried out through a partnership consisting of Human Resources and Skills 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 one of those domains in the years when it is the major focus. As was the case in 2000, reading was the major domain of PISA in 2009 when the focus was on both overall (or combined) reading literacy and the three reading sub-domains (reading retrieving, reading interpreting and reading reflecting). As minor domains in PISA 2009, only overall measures of mathematics and science are available.

    Why did Canada participate in PISA?

    Canada's continued participation in PISA 2009 stems from many of the same questions motivating other participating countries. In Canada, provinces and territories responsible for education invest significant public resources in the provision of elementary and secondary education and Canadians are interested in the outcomes of compulsory education provided to their youth. 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?

    Elementary and secondary education systems play a key role in providing students with the knowledge and skills that form an essential foundation necessary to further develop human capital either through participation in the workforce, post-secondary education or lifelong learning. Previous studies based on PISA data have shown the effects of strong skills at age 15 in later life. Youth with strong reading skills were much more likely to have finished high school, pursue post-secondary education and finish it. For example, results from the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS) show that there is a strong association between reading proficiency and education attainment. Canadian students in the bottom quartile of PISA reading scores were much more likely to drop out of secondary school and less likely to have completed a year of post-secondary education than those in the high quartile of reading score. In contrast, Canadian students in the top PISA level (Level 5) of reading performance were twenty times more likely to go to university than those in the lowest PISA level (at or below Level 1)3.

    Questions about educational effectiveness can be partly answered with data on the average performance of Canada's youth in key subject areas. 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 2009?

    Sixty-five countries and economies participated in PISA 2009, including all 33 OECD countries4. Between 5,000 and 10,000 students aged 15 from at least 150 schools were typically tested in each country. In Canada, approximately 23,000 15-year-olds from about 1,000 schools participated across the ten provinces5.

    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, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia. It should be noted that PISA was administered in English and in French according to the respective school system.

    The 2009 PISA assessment was administered in schools, during regular school hours in April and May 2009. This assessment was a two hour paper-and-pencil test. 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 2009, national options could also be implemented. Canada chose to add a 20-minute student questionnaire as a national component to collect more information on the school experiences of 15-year-olds, their work activities and their relationships with others.

    Objectives and organization of the report

    This report is the first of two reports that provide the initial results from the PISA 2009 assessment for Canada and the provinces. This report provides the first pan-Canadian results of the PISA 2009 assessment of reading, mathematics and science by presenting the national and provincial results in order to complement the information presented in the PISA 2009 International report6. Results are compared to other participating countries and across Canadian provinces.

    Chapter 1 provides information on the performance of Canadian 15-year-old students on the PISA 2009 assessment in reading. Chapter 2 presents results on the performance of Canada and the provinces in the minor domains of mathematics and science. Finally, the major findings and opportunities for further study are discussed in the conclusion.

    A second report will be released in the early Spring 2011 and will examine the relationship between student background characteristics, school factors, and student engagement with reading achievement.

    Table 1 Overview of PISA 2009Table 1 Overview of PISA 2009


    1. OECD (1999), Measuring Student Knowledge and Skills: A New Framework for Assessment, Paris.
    2. Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (2008). PCAP-13 2007 Report on the Assessment of 13-year-olds in Reading, Mathematics, and Science. Toronto.
    3. OECD (2010). Pathways to Success: How knowledge and Skills at age 15 shape future lives in Canada. Paris
    4. OECD countries include Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, and United States. Partner countries and economies are: Albania, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chinese Taipei, Colombia, Croatia, Dubai (UAE), Estonia, Hong Kong – China, Indonesia, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Macao-China, Montenegro, Panama, Peru, Qatar, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia, Shanghai-China, Singapore, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, and Uruguay.
    5. No data were collected in the three territories and First Nations schools.
    6. The PISA 2009 International report is released in five volumes. Results presented in this report correspond to results presented in Volume 1, OECD (2010) Tomorrow's skills today – Student performance in PISA 2009. Paris and Volume 5, OECD (2010) Learning Curves, From PISA 2000 to PISA 2009. Paris.
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