Canadian students are among the top performers in science, according to a new international ranking that shows a marked departure from the challenges faced in math.

Canada placed fourth over all in science, tied with Finland and behind Singapore, Japan and Estonia, in the latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the highly anticipated survey conducted every three years that measures how 15-year-old high-school students are doing in science, math and reading.

The education assessment of 72 countries, released Tuesday morning, paints a picture of Canadian students having a strong grasp of science literacy, but, at the same time, experts say educators and governments need to do a better job of helping students apply that interest to careers.

“There’s a greater awareness of the importance of science in the country’s future,” said Bonnie Schmidt, president of Let’s Talk Science, a non-profit organization that promotes learning in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

“Collectively as a country, we have to do a better job of showing where the opportunities are, helping young people and parents connect the dots to what they’re learning in school and what it means for future work and citizenship opportunities.”

The test results showed that Canada’s performance did not change much since 2006, when the country ranked third. The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC), noted the lack of improvement is cause for a closer analysis.

“Provinces and territories take these tests very, very seriously,” said Doug Currie, Prince Edward Island’s Minister of Education and CMEC chair. “Canada continues to prove and to back up that we’re certainly a global leader.”

Provincially, there were no significant changes over time in the test scores of students in almost all provinces. The only exceptions were Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, where the average score dropped by about 20 points.

About 20,000 Canadian students wrote the two-hour computer-based assessment in April and May, 2015.

The results found no significant difference in achievement scores between Canadian boys and girls.

Science scores, the focus of the 2015 PISA test, come three years after Canada dropped out of the top 10 in international math education standings, igniting a debate about how the subject is being taught in schools. Parents have been appealing to education ministries to take a back-to-basics approach to teaching math, emphasizing repetition and drills before problem-solving.

Math, as well as reading, were tested in the latest PISA results. But there were fewer questions asked and a smaller proportion of students participated.

Only students in Quebec and British Columbia performed above the Canadian average. Saskatchewan ranked at the bottom among provinces, and even performed below the OECD average, the only province to do so. Students in PEI, meanwhile, showed improvements from previous years.

Anna Stokke, a professor in the department of math and statistics at the University of Winnipeg and one of the main drivers for change in math, said she was heartened by the results in science, but remains troubled that students in many provinces continue to struggle in math.

Unlike the early stage of learning science, she said that math is “relentlessly cumulative, so if students don’t have the necessary background to learn new concepts they will struggle.”

Saskatchewan has held onto its curriculum and “ignored” parents, Prof. Stokke said. PEI’s scores, meanwhile, reflect changes in the province. The province went from having no standardized testing to introducing rigorous tests at Grades 3, 6 and 9 about six years ago.

“The PEI government seems to take feedback and data seriously and uses that data towards improving outcomes for students,” Prof. Stokke said.

She added: “It is extremely important that steps be taken to reverse the decline so that our children have access to a wide range of careers and the skills required to participate internationally.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Dec. 06, 2016 5:00AM EST
Last updated Monday, Dec. 05, 2016 8:54PM EST