Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies Series
Skills in Canada: First Results from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)
Canada in an international context
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- Canada ranks at the OECD average in literacy, below the OECD average in numeracy, and above the OECD average in PS-TRE.
- A high proportion of Canadians engage with ICT compared to the OECD average.
- Canada has a higher proportion of its population at the highest proficiency levels in literacy and PS-TRE compared to the OECD average.
- Canada has a larger proportion of adults at the lowest proficiency levels in all three domains compared to the OECD average.
This chapter presents the Canadian results from PIAAC broken down by province and territory, and compared to participating countries and sub-national regions. It provides a first look at PIAAC results for literacy, numeracy, and PS-TRE.
For the purposes of PIAAC, literacy is defined as “understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written texts to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential” (OECD 2012).
The population of adults aged 16-to-65 was assessed over a continuum of ability in literacy using a measurement scale ranging from 0 to 500. In this report, results for literacy are presented as either the average proficiency of the population (“average score”) or as the distribution of the population across proficiency levels. This report presents differences between countries in literacy using the OECD approach, that is to say, using the average score to determine a country’s position relative to the OECD average (see Chart 1.1). Proficiency levels are used to help interpret the findings. OECD has divided reporting scales for literacy into five proficiency levels (with an additional category, “below Level 1”), defined by a particular score-point range, where each level corresponds to a description of what adults with particular scores can do in concrete terms (see Table 1.1). Proficiency levels have a descriptive purpose only (see Chart 1.2).
Canada is at the OECD average in literacy
Canadians score at the OECD average of 273 points in literacy. The highest-scoring countries are Japan (296), Finland (288), the Netherlands (284), and Australia (280); countries performing at the same level as Canada include the Czech Republic (274), Korea (273), and the United Kingdom (272); while countries such as Germany (270), the United States (270), and Italy (250) score below the OECD average (Chart 1.1).
Two Canadian provinces — Alberta (278) and Ontario (276) — score above the OECD average in literacy. Six Canadian jurisdictions score at the OECD average, and five are below the average (Chart 1.1).
The OECD average for the variation of scores within each population, as measured by the average score-point difference between the 5th and 95th percentiles, is 151 points. In Canada, the difference is 163 points, and countries with similar trends in variation include Sweden (163 points); Spain, Finland, and the United States (162 points); and Australia (161 points).
Canada has a higher proportion of its population at the highest and lowest levels in literacy
Fourteen percent of Canadians score at Level 4 or 5, meaning that they can undertake tasks that involve integrating information across multiple dense texts and reasoning by inference. This places Canada above the OECD average of 12%, along with Japan (23%), Finland (22%), the Netherlands (19%), Australia (17%), and Sweden (16%).
At the other end of the scale, 17% of Canadians score at Level 1 or below. Of these, 13% score at Level 1: these individuals have skills that enable them to undertake tasks of limited complexity, such as locating single pieces of information in short texts in the absence of other distracting information. The remaining 4%, categorized as “below Level 1,” do not command these skills. They demonstrate only basic vocabulary, as well as the ability to read brief texts on familiar topics to locate a single piece of specific information. The OECD average for Level 1 or below is 15%.
PIAAC defines numeracy as “the ability to access, use, interpret and communicate mathematical information and ideas, in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life” (OECD 2012). The PIAAC definition is designed to evaluate how mathematical concepts are applied in the real world — not whether someone can solve a set of equations in isolation.
The population of adults aged 16 to 65 was assessed over a continuum of ability in numeracy using a measurement scale ranging from 0 to 500. As is the case for literacy, the results for numeracy are presented either as an average or as a distribution across proficiency levels. Differences between countries are illustrated by comparing their average scores to the OECD average (see Chart 1.3). Reporting scales for numeracy are divided into five proficiency levels (with an additional category, “below Level 1”), defined by a particular score-point range (see Table 1.2). Proficiency levels have a descriptive purpose only (see Chart 1.4).
Canada is below the OECD average in numeracy
Canada’s average score of 265 places it below the OECD average of 269, alongside countries such as Korea (263), the United Kingdom (262) and the United States (253). Among the highest-scoring countries are Japan (288), Finland (282), Sweden (279), and Germany (272). In Canada, all 13 provinces and territories scored either at or below the OECD average (Chart 1.3).
The distribution of scores across each population shows that, on average for participating OECD countries, 166 points separate the 5th and 95th percentiles in numeracy. Canada’s difference is 180 points; countries with similar trends in variation include the United States (188 points), Australia (182 points), and the United Kingdom (178 points).
Canada matches the OECD average at the high levels, and exceeds it at the lowest levels
Thirteen percent of Canadians score at Level 4 or 5 in numeracy proficiency, which means they can understand complex mathematical information and work with mathematical arguments and models. This proportion is equal to the OECD average (Chart 1.4).
At the other end of the scale, 23% of Canadians score at Level 1 or below. Of these, 17% score at Level 1, which means that they have the skills to perform simple mathematical operations involving a single step, such as counting or ordering. The remaining 6% are categorized as “below Level 1,” which means they can cope with very simple tasks placed in concrete, familiar contexts where the mathematical content is explicit and requires only simple processes. The OECD average for Level 1 or below is 19%, which means that there are proportionally more Canadians with this degree of proficiency.
Problem solving in technology-rich environments (PS-TRE)
PIAAC defines PS‑TRE as the ability to use “digital technology, communication tools and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others and perform practical tasks” (OECD 2012). The assessment focuses on “the ability to solve problems for personal, work and civic purposes by setting up appropriate goals and plans, as well as accessing and making use of information through computers and computer networks.” The aim was not to test the use of ICT tools (e.g., hardware devices, software applications) in isolation; rather, it was to assess the capacity to use these tools to complete concrete tasks effectively.
The PS-TRE measure is unique in incorporating digital technology in the solution of problems. It demands that respondents engage with ICT to perform information-processing tasks, and as a result only those who complete the computer-based version of PIAAC (referred to as the computer-based assessment [CBA]) can be assessed for PS-TRE. Those who did not complete it are referred to as ‘PS-TRE non-respondents’.
The use of ICT
A high proportion of Canadians engage with ICT compared to the OECD average
With 81% of its population participating in the CBA, Canada is above the OECD average of 74%. The proportion of those who completed the computer-based version of PIAAC varies from 88% in Sweden to 44% in Cyprus. Almost all provinces and territories were at or above the OECD average (Chart 1.5).
In total, 19% of Canadians were not assessed using CBA. Of this group, 10% were not assessed because they either had no experience with computers (4%), or they failed the test of their basic computer skills, referred to as “ICT core skills” (6%).Note 1 Of the remaining 8%, a total of 6% opted out of the computer-based assessment in favour of the paper-based version, even though they reported having experience with computers; and 2% were classified as “PIAAC non-respondents.”Note 2 Nothing can be concluded about the abilities of this 8% concerning the use of ICT or their ability to solve problems in technology-rich environments.
Further study is needed to compare the socio-demographic characteristics of those who were assessed using the CBA with those who were not to consider whether they are different, and to determine what, if any, implications this has for our understanding of the skills of Canadians in PS-TRE. Preliminary analysis suggests that age, educational attainment, and labour force status, as well as proficiency in literacy and numeracy, could all provide further insights.
Performance in PS‑TRE
The population of adults aged 16 to 65 was assessed over a continuum of ability in PS-TRE using a measurement scale ranging from 0 to 500. A prerequisite for displaying proficiency in PS-TRE was the completion of the computer-based version of PIAAC, and it must be noted here that the levels of completion varied considerably across countries (see Chart 1.5). As a result, the estimates of proficiency in this domain refer to very different proportions of the populations. For this reason, the presentation of results for PS-TRE focuses on the proportions of the population by proficiency levels rather than the comparison of average scores, to take into account the proportions of the populations who do not have a score for PS-TRE.
OECD has divided reporting scales for PS-TRE into three proficiency levels (with an additional category, “below Level 1”), defined by a particular score-point range, where each level corresponds to a description of what adults with particular scores can do in concrete terms (see Table 1.3). This report presents differences between countries in PS-TRE using the OECD approach, that is to say, the percentage of 16-to-65 year olds scoring at Levels 2 and 3 are combined to determine a country’s position relative to the OECD average (see Chart 1.6).
Canada is above the OECD average in PS-TRE
Thirty-seven percent of Canadians surveyed score at Level 2 or 3 on the PS-TRE scale, which is above the OECD average of 34%. Other countries scoring above the OECD average include Sweden (44%), the Netherlands (44%), Finland (42%), Norway (41%), and Australia (38%). Countries scoring below the OECD average include the United States (31%), Korea (30%), and Ireland (25%). All provinces and territories, with the exception of Nunavut (11%), and Newfoundland and Labrador (29%) score at or above the OECD average.
Canada has higher proportion of its population at the highest and lowest levels in PS‑TRE
Seven percent of Canadians perform at Level 3, meaning they can complete tasks involving multiple applications and a large number of steps in an environment that may be unfamiliar, and they can establish a plan to arrive at a solution as they deal with unexpected outcomes and impasses. At this level, Canada is above the OECD average of 6%, exceeded only by Sweden (9%).
On the other hand, 15% of Canadians are categorized as “below Level 1,” which is more than the OECD average of 12%. These individuals display the requisite ICT abilities for undertaking the test, but in their abilities to solve problems they fall short of Level 1. Thirty percent of Canadians perform at Level 1, meaning that they can solve problems that have an explicitly stated goal, and that involve a relatively small number of steps to be completed in familiar environment. The OECD average for the proportion of the population at Level 1 is 29%, which is not significantly different from Canada.
This first look at Canada’s PIAAC results for literacy, numeracy, and problem solving in technology-rich environments identifies some initial areas for further analysis, both among provinces and territories in Canada, and globally among countries. One of the first steps to a better understanding of the results for Canada is explored in Chapter 2, where results are presented in terms of the relationships between proficiency and socio-demographic characteristics.