Math and reading scores of Canadian students continue to decline steeply, matching a global trend, according to a new study.

The state of global education was given a bleak appraisal in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is the first study to examine the academic progress of 15-year-old students in dozens of countries during the pandemic.

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Released Tuesday, it found the average international math score fell by the equivalent of 15 points compared to 2018 scores, while reading scores fell 10 points.

The study found Canada’s overall math scores declined 15 points between 2018 and 2022. According to PISA, which defines a drop of 20 points as losing out on a fully year of learning, that means Canada’s math scores dropped by an equivalent of three-quarters of a year of learning.

During that same time period, reading scores of Canadian students dropped by 13 points and science by three.

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Grade 10 math scores are slipping in Canada, study finds

Results from an international math assessment of 15-year-olds in dozens of countries place Canada in the top 10. But rankings aside, the numbers paint a troubling picture of declining math skills in the country.

Only 12 per cent of Canadian students were high math achievers, scoring at Level 5 or 6. That’s fewer than some of the top Asian countries and economies: In Singapore, 41 per cent of students performed at the top level; in Hong Kong, 27 per cent; and in Japan and Korea, 23 per cent.

Louis Volante, a professor of educational governance at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., believes the pandemic has had more of a negative effect on math learning than reading and science.

“I think reading skills, for example, can still be developed outside of a traditional face-to-face classroom,” Volante told CBC News.

“But I do think that having a student in a classroom with a teacher getting that support, either individually or in small groups, will have a more beneficial impact in terms of achievement outcomes.”

Volante added that Canada’s PISA scores may not be indicative of the whole country, as some provinces — notably Alberta, BC, Ontario and Quebec — often score higher than the national average.

‘Some provinces are declining more than others’

Anna Stokke, a math professor at the University of Winnipeg, notes that math scores in Canada have been trending in the wrong direction since 2003, “with some provinces declining more than others.”

According to the study, the provinces with the largest drop in math scores since 2018 were Newfoundland Labrador with 29, Nova Scotia with 24, New Brunswick with 23 and Manitoba with 22. Meanwhile, Alberta’s score only dropped by seven and BC’s just eight.

“I do think part of the problem is the philosophy of how to teach math,” Stokke told CBC News.

“First of all, we’re not spending enough time on math in schools. And second of all, kids just aren’t getting good instruction in a lot of cases. They’re not getting explicit instruction. They’re not getting enough practice. And that really needs to change.”

Pandemic’s effect ‘not so direct,’ study says

The new results point to an “unprecedented drop in performance,” the PISA report says. It raises concerns about countries like Germany, Iceland and the Netherlands, which saw drops of 25 points or more in math scores.

Across all participating countries, the average math score fell by about 15 points since the 2018 tests. Reading scores fell by 10 points. Neither subject has seen a change of more than five points previously. The bright light was in science, where scores changed little since 2018.

There’s no doubt the disruption of the pandemic was a major factor in the global setbacks. But the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) also cautions against blaming it all on COVID-19. It agrees science and reading scores were falling before the pandemic, and some countries such as Belgium, Finland, Canada and France were already trending downward in mathematics.

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It also finds the link between school closures and academic setbacks was “not so direct.”

A survey of students found about half-faced closures of more than three months, but it didn’t always lead to lower scores. There was “no clear difference” in performance trends between countries that had limited closures, including Iceland and Sweden, and those with longer closures, including Brazil and Ireland, according to the report.

“Many other factors impacted learning during this period, such as the quality of remote teaching and levels of support granted to struggling students,” it said.

Canada still in top 10

Singapore, long seen as an educational powerhouse, has the highest scores by far in every subject. It was joined in the upper echelons by other East Asian countries, including Japan and China.

Despite the declines across the subjects, Canada did well compared to the other countries in the report, placing ninth in mathematics, sixth in reading and seventh in science.

Albania saw the biggest decline in math scores, with a staggering 69-point decline, followed by Jordan with 39 points, and Iceland with 36. Iceland’s drop knocked it below the US and the OECD average. Norway fell 33 points, dropping to the global average.

Most of the countries that saw math gains had relatively low performance levels to start with, including Saudi Arabia, Dominican Republic and Cambodia.

Usually given every three years, the latest test was delayed a year because of the pandemic. It was administered in 2022 to a sample of 15-year-olds in 37 countries that are OECD members, plus 44 other partner countries. The test has been conducted since 2000.

In 2022, 81 countries participated, with 23,000 Canadian high school students writing the test.

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Over the years, the test has helped drive policy decisions and curriculum changes in many jurisdictions, but has also exposed government action.

Volante says he hopes the results spur officials to improve the education experience overall instead of fixating on specific subjects highlighted in the study.

“I think there is a danger with these results for governments in different provinces to narrow the curriculum, focusing specifically on mathematics to the exclusion of other subject areas,” he said.

“There’s simply students who come to school and their strengths lie outside of those tested domains. We need to create an environment where those strengths are also recognised.”