Ontario’s PISA results reveal a decline in education rating

Ontario’s PISA results reveal a decline in education rating

In last year’s Annual Report, the Task Force presented the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results. PISA is an international examination developed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to determine whether 15-year-old students have the necessary science, reading, and mathematical skills and competencies to ensure their full participation in modern society.

This year’s Annual Report recommended that the provincial government make the proper investments in education to ensure that students are prepared to meet the workplace realities of tomorrow. Failing to produce workers who have the essential skills to help make Ontario more productive and competitive will significantly impede the province’s ability to close the prosperity gap.

The OECD released the results of the 2012 PISA this month and while Canada – and Ontario - remain above the United States in each of the three subject areas, rankings slipped from 2009 levels. Canada placed 9th in math in 2009 but fell to 14th in 2012. The country ranked 6th in reading and 7th in science in 2009 but regressed to 9th and 10th, respectively, in 2012. Jurisdictions such as Singapore, Japan, and Hong Kong outperformed the country in all three subject areas.

In Ontario, the situation is equally alarming. In reading, the difference between the 2009 and 2012 results were not statistically significant, meaning that Ontario remained the same in performance while other jurisdictions improved, causing the province to fall from 6th to 9th place. However, in science, the tumble from 7th to 10th was statistically significant, indicating that Ontario is doing worse than in 2009. The 2012 PISA focused on math and the results revealed that the performance of Ontario and Canada is faltering from the 2003 PISA, landing in 19th place in 2012.[1]

Ontario needs to step up to the challenge posed by its lower PISA scores and improve its performance. Based on the PISA results, 14 percent of 15-year-olds do not have the minimum math skills for functioning effectively in modern society. Unless these students receive the proper assistance to bring their mathematical skills up to the baseline, they will face significant difficulties entering into post-secondary studies that require basic math ability and even greater challenges finding work. Conversely, those who have achieved a level 6, which is the highest proficiency level in reading, are 20 times more likely to go to university than those in the lowest level.[2]

Since education systems vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, comparisons between them are often riddled with inaccuracies. Ontario may not benefit from imitating Hong Kong or Shanghai, but it should look within its national borders for best practices and ways to improve. The province has made many positive changes to its curricula, but Québec, Alberta, and British Columbia continue to outperform Ontario in math, science and reading, respectively. All of these provinces are undergoing some level of educational reform and the previous improvements by Alberta in science or British Columbia in English have clearly paid off. 

Few scholars have identified the definitive reasons for Alberta’s triumph in science, although the province’s long history of provincial assessment testing may have contributed to better test taking preparation for students.[3] Yet Alberta is moving away from a test-focused model and future PISA scores will either support or refute the notion that test preparedness was a leading contributor to the province’s success. Nonetheless, Alberta invests the most per student in primary and secondary education out of all Canadian provinces. Ontario is at the median and should prioritize its spending to increase investment in education.[4]

Ontario should also learn from Québec’s high school mathematics curriculum. The goal of the curriculum is specific, focusing on developing math skills rather than a general statement of preparing students to become productive members of society. Students have fewer objectives to achieve and learn fewer topics to allow more in-depth learning, with a focus on problem-solving and connecting abstract and concrete concepts.[5]

PISA scores only act as indicators to determine how well the province tracks compared to other jurisdictions. Ontario must continue to make strides in enhancing its education curriculum to close the prosperity gap.


[1] Pierre Brochu, Marie-Anne Deussing, Koffi Houme, and Maria Chuy, Measuring up: Canadian results of the OECD PISA Study, Council of Ministers of Education, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Alan Taylor and Teresita Tubianosa, Student Assessment in Canada, Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education, 2001.

[4] Statistics Canada, Education indicators in Canada: An international perspective, Tourism and Centre for Education Statistics Division, 2012.

[5] Helen Raptis and Laurier Baxter, “Analysis of an Abandoned Reform Initiative: The Case of Mathematics in British Columbia,” Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 2006, Vol. 49, pp. 1-22. 

Photo Credit: SaimonSailent, Getty Images 

Category: Education