Perspectives: The State of Science Education in Canada: Are We Keeping Up?

Canadians have good reason to be proud of their science education system. According to the latest results from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Program on International Student Achievement (PISA), Canadian students are among the best in the world when it comes to science learning outcomes. This is a tremendous achievement for Canadian educators. It points to an educational system which does an admirable job of both preparing young Canadians for careers in science and technology and cultivating a high level of scientific literacy in the general public. However, as reassuring as it is to have Canada’s excellence in science education confirmed by another round of international tests, the potential lessons to be drawn from PISA relate to Canada’s weaknesses compared to other countries.

What is PISA?

PISA is a collaborative, international student assessment program (i.e. a test) administered by the OECD. One of the most high-profile international educational assessments, the test is designed to provide policy-relevant, internationally comparable data on educational outcomes in 15 year-old students (15 year-olds were chosen somewhat arbitrarily to capture students near the completion of the formal education system). Students from participating countries are tested in three general domains: reading, mathematics, and science. The test has been administered every three years since it was introduced in 2000, with each round assessing a particular domain in detail. In 2009, 65 countries participated in PISA, including all 33 OECD countries. Approximately 23,000 students from 1,000 schools in Canada received the test.

Regarding its assessment of science education, PISA employs a somewhat unique approach. The test uses a science literacy lens to test student learning, and defines science literacy as:

The capacity to use scientific knowledge, to identify questions and to draw evidence-based conclusions in order to understand and help make decisions about the natural world and the changes made to it through human activity i.

More specifically, PISA is designed to test students on a series of 12 scientific competencies, organized into three general areas: i) identifying scientific issues, ii) explaining phenomena scientifically, and iii) using scientific evidence. This makes PISA different from what most people think of when they imagine a science test. The test does more than just assess a student’s ability to recall of scientific facts; it also evaluates the ability to recognize and use scientific information and logically apply this information to explain natural phenomena.

Canada’s Performance on Science Literacy in PISA

Canada performs very well in the PISA assessments in general, and science is no exception. In the 2009 assessment, Canada ranked eighth out of the 65 participating countries on PISA’s aggregate science scale, and Canada’s average score of 529 was well above the OECD mean of approximately 500. Country rankings with PISA scores, however, can be deceptive due to often large margins of error. A better approach is to concentrate only on statistically significant differences across groups of countries. As shown in Figure 1, in 2009 six countries had scores statistically significantly above Canada’s, and four others have scores which are not significantly different from Canada’s.

Note: Countries shaded in darker blue have average scores that are significantly above Canada’s, and countries shaded in light blue have average scores are significantly below Canada’s (p=0.05). Error bars indicate the 95% confidence interval.
Source: Statistics Canada (2009). Measuring Up: The Canadian Results from the OECD PISA Study

Canada can also be proud of the number of Canadian students reaching the top levels of proficiency in science literacy. Just over 11 per cent of Canadian students score in the top two levels of proficiency in science, compared to 8.5 per cent in the OECD average. This is important as it is often only those students who reach these higher levels of competency that will pursue advance degrees in science and develop careers as scientists or engineers. Yet Canada’s performance here is notably lower than other world leaders. In Finland, New Zealand, and Japan over 15 per cent of students assessed reached these top levels of achievement.

Canada’s international standing on PISA’s science assessment has also slipped since 2006. In 2006, only two participating countries had average science scores significantly above Canada’s: Finland and Hong Kong-China. In 2009, six countries significantly outperformed Canada: Finland, Hong Kong-China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Shanghai-China. Singapore and Shanghai-China were new participants to PISA in 2009; had they been included in the 2006 assessment, they very well might have outperformed Canada then as well. But, Japan and South Korea both improved their scores significantly in the intervening years, whereas the evidence suggests that Canada did not.

What Can Canada Learn from Other Countries?

This naturally raises questions about what Canada can learn from other top-performing countries. Based on PISA 2009, China may be the first country that Canada should look to in the future. The biggest story which emerged from the 2009 assessment was the impressive dominance of Shanghai students in all subjects. Students from Shanghai ranked first in science, mathematics, and reading, with scores well above the OECD average. This was the first year that any jurisdiction in mainland China has participated in PISA, and only students in selected jurisdictions, such as Shanghai were tested. As a result, these scores cannot be taken as representative of China as whole. However, the extremely high level of achievement demonstrated is forcing educators across the world to take a new look at China’s approaches to primary and secondary education in all areas.

Other countries may hold lessons for Canada as well. Finland’s history of high performance on educational tests has frequently made it the envy of educators in other countries. There is no ready consensus on what makes the Finnish school system particularly successful, but one explanation often explored is Finland’s widely-touted system of universal early-childhood education and daycare ii. In Japan, it may be a return to previous strategies that explains recent successes. Japanese educators and policy makers were duly shocked when the results of the 2003 and 2006 rounds of PISA revealed results weaker than anticipated. As a result, Japan quickly reversed reforms that had been enacted in the early 2000s, which had resulted in reduced school time and cuts in the curriculum iii. South Korea appears to be experimenting with new approaches to making connections between science and other areas of study. The government is now in the early stages of implementing a new science education initiative built around exploring interrelationships between science, engineering, mathematics, and the arts iv.

Many other countries also saw significant improvements in their science scores since 2006. Turkey saw a 30 point increase in its average score between 2006 and 2009, indicating a remarkable period of improvement; and Portugal, Chile, the United States and Norway all saw significant gains as well. While some of these countries’ science scores are below Canada’s, that doesn’t necessarily preclude Canada from being able to learn from their successful reforms v.

There is certainly no guarantee that Canada can improve its approach to science education based on studying the educational practices of other countries. Educational systems are complex, and instructional practices in one country may not be easily transposed to another. Nevertheless, even without attempting to directly import strategies from other countries, there may be important lessons that Canadian educators can draw from successful science education reformers.

The most important message for Canada from this latest round of PISA scores may be that science education, like science itself, is far from static. Canada’s educators should be duly applauded for their past achievements. Based on results from PISA, science education in Canada appears to remain among the best in the world. But educators and policy-makers should not let Canada’s currently high level of performance diminish efforts to continually advance the state of science literacy in Canada.

The full results from PISA 2009, as well as additional discussion and analysis of these results, can be found on the OECD’s website.

Dane Berry is a Research Associate at the Council of Canadian Academies. He holds a Masters of Public Policy from Simon Fraser University, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Wesleyan University, Connecticut, with a concentration in Philosophy of Sciences.

Works Cited

i OECD (2009). PISA 2009 Assessment Framework: Key competencies in reading, mathematics and science.

ii For example, see Jimenez, M. (2009, June 16). Early education's top model: Finland. The Globe and Mail.

iii Foster, M. (2010, Sept. 6). Japan fattens textbooks to reverse sliding rank. USA Today.

iv See the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology website: ; and

v OECD (2010). PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do.

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