PISA 2015 gives cause for celebration but not complacency

Bonnie Schmidt, President of Let’s Talk Science
Andrew Parkin, education policy consultant

Canadians can be proud of results of the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, released December 6th. We are one of only a handful of countries that places in the top tier in the OECD in each of the three subjects tested: science, reading and math.

Bonnie Schmidt Planting Tomatosphere Seeds

Canadian students not only exceeded the international average in science performance – they were among the best in the world in this subject. This is a positive result, given the diversity of our education systems and of our student population.  Canada was also near the very top in reading, and remained in the top ten in math.  The OECD even singled Canada out for our ability to combine high achievement with a commitment to equity in education. There is no gender gap in science performance in Canada, nor is there a gap between immigrant students and those born in Canada. Parents in particular should welcome these findings.

Not only do Canadian students perform well in science, but they are also more likely than the OECD average to expect to have careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) (34% Canadian students have this expectation, compared with an international average of 25%). This is good news for Canada and a testament to the many organizations across the country that help schools connect the dots between classroom science learning and the world of work. But significant gender differences remain in terms of the specific types of STEM careers that boys and girls expect to have, with girls much more likely to expect careers in health sciences (29% vs 10%) and boys much more likely to expect careers in engineering (18% vs 7%) and information and communications technology (ICT) (3.7% vs 0.3%).

Parent helping children with homework

While the PISA results do warrant celebration, we can’t become complacent. Challenges continue, not the least of which is figuring out how to continue evolving learning opportunities for Canadian youth so they can participate as citizens and in the labour market in a rapidly changing world.   And even though Canada stands out for its record in equity, some students still struggle to get the necessary attention. For example, PISA makes no reference to Indigenous students.  In addition, girls continue to significantly outperform boys in reading (though interestingly the gap narrows with digital reading), and in some (but not all) provinces, boys outperform girls in math. Minority language classrooms (i.e. French learners outside Quebec and English learners in Quebec) also continue to lag behind.

And when we look at top-performing Canadian science students, only half expect to work in a science-related career. This might signal future challenges recruiting top talent to work in the science and technology sector in Canada. The fact that boys in Canada are more likely than girls to want to work in ICT should not to overshadow the finding that, taken together, very few young people see themselves working this sector.  It is critical that we ensure our 5 million youth in Kindergarten to Grade 12 understand the diverse post-secondary education and career pathways that require or benefit from STEM – including pathways through college, university and the skilled trades.

A collective effort is required to ensure all Canadian youth are prepared for an increasingly complex and technology-rich world. As part of this effort, Let’s Talk Science and our partners are proud to be leading Canada 2067, an ambitious initiative designed to catalyze national conversations about our collective roles in supporting youth. Together we can develop a renewed vision for STEM education and a learning framework that can support all stakeholders who are interested in inspiring futures.

Have your say and get involved at Canada2067.ca.