Alberta's PISA: Leaning, Towering
Are education standards falling?
Is Canada falling behind other countries in key subjects?
Is Alberta falling behind other provinces?
Are children learning what previous generations were expected to know?
Can we see patterns in what kind of instruction improves understanding over time?
Can we tell if new reforms don't live up to their promise or even make things worse?
These are the questions that led to the establishment of the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, and the test’s adoption by all Canadian provinces.
It does not answer all the questions we might have about education.
It is not even a perfect vehicle for answering the above questions.
But it is the most widely agreed upon way to assess the education of the world's 15-year-olds across jurisdictions and time.
And the 2022 PISA results were just released for the whole world.
So, how did Alberta do?
Alberta has gone from being 3rd in the world in Reading to being 2nd.
Alberta has gone from being 3rd in the world in Science to being 2nd.
Alberta has gone from being 8th in the world in Math to being 7th.
Alberta’s ranking change is more of an indictment of the rest of the world, than reflective of actual improvements in Alberta.
Comparing the Alberta 15-year-olds of 2022 to Alberta 15-year-olds of 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2015, and 2018 shows the slide.
In math, Alberta began two decades ago at an average result of 549 (the average for the world was 500).
Our math scores have been falling ever since, now down to an average of 504 (the world average has fallen to 472).
In reading, Alberta began two decades ago at an average result of 533 (the average for the world was 493).
Alberta’s average reading scores now sit at 525 (the world average has fallen to 477).
So, in short, Alberta's scores are actually dropping.
We're only improving in the rankings because we're not dropping as quickly as the rest of the world!
Since Alberta’s prolonged school closures, a smaller share of Alberta 15-year-olds are taking the PISA test than ever before.
Worse, it's academically weaker students who are more likely to be missing school and therefore missing the test.
That means that our scores are likely biased upwards in every subject (though this likely happens in other countries too).
Unfortunately, this means that even with the weakest students missing the test at higher rates than ever, Alberta has more students with little to no math competency than ever before.
In 2012, only 15.1% of Alberta 15-year-olds lacked the baseline math skills to participate in society.
In 2022, 21.4% of of Alberta 15-year-olds lack the baseline math skills to participate in society.
This baseline level is what experts judge to be necessary for people to navigate basic situations involving numbers.
In other words, more than 1 in 5 kids aren't learning enough basic math to function as independent adult.
Can We Start to Understand Why?
There's some slight good news that might help us understand the problem.
Alberta’s average math scores fell by less in 2022 than they have been consistently falling in previous years.
This hints that new-millennium-fads in teaching math that were followed by much of the developed world had a more profound impact than even the missed instruction time due to pandemic restrictions.
This does mean, though, that we can't simply write this decline off as a pandemic learning loss.
In math, in particular, the troubles precede COVID school closures, and will continue long beyond them if we don't take action.
For one, we must reject the calls from the Alberta Teachers' Association to double down on a losing strategy.
Jason Schilling, the President of the Alberta Teachers' Association, says that Alberta should copy the "rest of the world" by teaching more "inquiry-based" methods of math instruction that avoid memorization, structured practice, and direct instruction from the teacher.
What he neglects to mention is that the "rest of the world" are all doing worse than Alberta, with the sole exception of Singapore - which has utterly rejected this approach.
In other words, when it comes to math education, the teachers' union want to copy the countries performing worse than Alberta, and reject the methods being used in the one place beating us!
The good news is that the way to achieve better student achievement is not a secret.
We need to maintain Alberta's excellent system of school choice, which has led to proven results.
And we can follow the example of the few jurisdictions that perform better than us, rather than listen to the teachers' union who want us to copy the places doing worse than us.
We can demand evidence-based policymaking, rather than policy-based evidence-making.
And we can look to the schools in Alberta that are producing superior student results in each subject, instead of having to learn how to find the lowest common denominator from the lowest common denominator.
We can't afford to be complacent - not when it comes to the future of our kids.
We can't look at these scores and tell ourselves that everything is just fine.
Not when our children lack the essential math skills to function in society.
The Alberta Parents' Union is at the forefront of advocating for improving our education system.
We reject the misguided calls to emulate struggling educational strategies and instead look to jurisdictions outperforming us.
Are you ready to add your voice?
Every time we add a new member, our collective voice grows stronger.
Help us advocate for a brighter future for Alberta's children.
Alberta Parents' Union