Studies say Canada’s high-school students are tops—yet many struggle in university

SANDY FARRAN November 24 2008


Studies say Canada’s high-school students are tops—yet many struggle in university

SANDY FARRAN November 24 2008


Studies say Canada’s high-school students are tops—yet many struggle in university


Are you smarter than a 10th grader? Try this math problem: Nick wants to pave the rectangular patio of his new house. The patio is 5.25 metres long and three metres wide. He needs 81 bricks per square metre. How many bricks does Nick need for the whole patio?

The preceding is a sample question from the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, a two-hour test that measured the math, science and literacy levels of 15year-olds. More than 400,000 students from 57 countries took part, and Canadian kids were once again among the best in the world, finishing third in science (behind Finland and Hong Kong), fourth in reading (behind Korea, Finland and Hong Kong), and seventh in mathematics.

Canada’s impressive PISA results are not an aberration: when international studies of teenage and elementary student achievement are conducted, Canadian students and the

Canadian education system shine. Over the past decade, Canadian elementaryand secondary-school students have repeatedly ranked among the world’s best in mathematics, science, reading and writing.

But while international tests say that our kids and our high schools are tops, there’s compelling evidence from universities and colleges that paints a very different picture. “[High-school] students have done math programs that are supposed to have prepared them for post-secondary,” says Memorial University mathematics and statistics professor Sherry Mantyka, “and they’re desperately not prepared.” Before students at Memorial can take a math credit course, they must take a math placement test; each year, 25 per cent to 50 per cent score at a Grade 6 level or lower. A study of more than 10,000 students who entered college in 2006 in the Toronto area showed that 35 per cent earned a D or an F in first-term college math. And it’s not just math: at the University of Ottawa, to catch the large number of students falling behind and falling through the cracks, the administration in the last few years has felt it necessary to expand its student help centres and hire hundreds of student tutors. The Univer-

sity of Waterloo has first-year students write a five-paragraph essay, which is graded on grammar, punctuation and structure. Each year, roughly one-quarter fail. Waterloo is a university where admission is highly competitive, and generally awarded to only well-aboveaverage high-school grads.

What’s going on? Are Canadian high-school students among the best prepared on earth— or are many shockingly unprepared for higher education? The answer is yes. And yes.

John Bilewicz, a recent Wilfrid Laurier University grad, had a 92 per cent average when he graduated from high school in 2003. He nevertheless struggled in his first year at university, particularly in calculus. “It was pretty bad. There was a huge failure rate in that class,” says the 22-year-old from Collingwood, Ont. Bilewicz didn’t achieve the overall 70 per cent grade he needed to continue in Laurier’s bachelor of business admin-

istration program. Many students in Bilewicz’s situation drop out; he managed to switch to the general arts program. (Laurier has since retooled the calculus course and added tutorial sessions.)

Bilewicz’s story—serious post-secondary challenges coming on the heels of excellent high-school grades—is a national phenomenon. With her university admitting so many students lacking basic math skills, Memorial’s Mantyka created what is probably the country’s most comprehensive remedial math program. Before they can take a math course at her university, students must pass a placement test. The one-quarter to one-half scoring at or below a Grade 6 level are put into the Foundation Math Program: three noncredit courses over three semesters. “If you don’t have any skills to actually do arithmetic or do any kind of symbolic manipulation,” says Mantyka, “and if all you can do is begin to punch numbers in a calculator, then your ability to solve problems in any kind of meaningful way is vacuous.”

How do Canadian high-school students compare internationally?

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests the knowledge of 15-year-olds in three key areas: math, science and reading. Fifty-seven countries took part in the 2006 survey. Canadian high-schoolers—roughly 22,000 were tested—made a strong showing, placing well above the OECD average in all three subjects.


1 Taiwan 549

2 Finland 548

3 Hong Kong 547

3 Korea 547

5 Netherlands 531

6 Switzerland 530

7 CANADA 527

8 Macau 525

8 Liechtenstein 525

10 Japan 523

21 Sweden 502

OECD Average 498

25 United Kingdom 495

34 Russian Federation 476

35 United States 474

53 Brazil 370

57 Kyrgyzstan 311


1 Finland

2 Hong Kong


4 Taiwan

5 Estonia 5 Japan

7 New Zealand

8 Australia

9 Netherlands

10 Korea

14 United Kingdom 22 Sweden

OECD Average

29 United States 35 Russian Federation 52 Brazil 57 Kyrgyzstan


563 1 Korea 556

542 2 Finland 547

534 3 Hong Kong 536

532 4 CANADA 527

531 5 New Zealand 521

531 6 Ireland 517

530 7 Australia 513

527 8 Liechtenstein 510

525 9 Poland 508

522 10 Netherlands 507

515 10 Sweden 507

503 18 United Kingdom 495

500 OECD Average 491

489 39 Russian Federation 440

479 48 Brazil 393

390 56 Kyrgyzstan 285

322 United States Data not available

Other universities are similarly working to find their weak students and help them—and not just in math. The University of Ottawa has hired statisticians to track first-year-student test scores, early in the first term. If a student is deemed at risk, a faculty adviser calls and encourages them to take advantage of tutoring services offered at several sites around campus.

Others have responded differently. As of September, students can gain admittance to Alberta’s faculty of arts with either a Grade 12 math or science—they are no longer required to have both. Meanwhile, in British Columbia, the province still requires high-school students to write an English Grade 12 exit exam, but exams in other subjects are now optional.

So where does this leave Canada’s vaunted international performance? Why the apparent discrepancy between high-school and university performance?

For starters, a closer look at PISA shows that while Canada’s test results put its 15-yearolds among the world’s best, the Canadian lead over the rest of the world is in some cases not large. For example, in mathematics, Canadian students ranked seventh overall on the PISA, yet the distance between Canada and the next seven countries is so small that the difference may not be statistically significant. Canada’s seventh place may not be any better than Belgium’s 12th-place finish; still not bad but somewhat less impressive.

Another reason that average Canadian highschool PISA scores are relatively higher than those of other countries is that our education system is more egalitarian. PISA scores are averaged across an entire country, and in Canada, the gap between the worst students and

the best is less than in Germany, the United States or France. That’s mostly a good thing— Canada’s below-average students are less below average than those in other countries. However, “that doesn’t mean we have more high performers—and it’s the high performers that go on to be successful in science and math in university,” says Paul Cappon, president and CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning. “It simply means that on average, our scores are better.” Canada’s above-average highschool students—the students who go to university—are less above the national average than those in other countries. Our superstars may be less super. For example, from 1995 to 2004, Canada did not rank among the top 10 in the International Mathematical Olympiad, an elite annual event for high-school students from around the world. China, on the other hand, had seven first-place finishes, a second place and a sixth place. The United States had seven top-three finishes.

That said, Canada and its 15-year-olds still

do relatively well on the PISA. But PISA is a test of kids at age 15, several years before they get to university. Is there something that happens after Grade 10, something that causes performance and learning to drop? Cappon says that a fear of mathematics and science begins to take hold during these years, sometimes compounded by parents who themselves are afraid of these subjects. “Parents are worried because they can’t understand their children’s mathematics homework and science homework, and that parental influence or fear is passed on to students.” Heading into Grade 11 and 12, calculus and other difficult subjects loom. “It doesn’t frighten kids from Korea or Hong Kong or Singapore,” says Cappon. “The expectation in those societies is that they will do well in mathematics and they will do well in science and there is no reason not to. Whereas in North America, I’m afraid there is trepidation about those subjects.”

As a result, many students nearing the end of high school are choosing easier math courses, or else they don’t take math at all, in an effort to keep their marks high enough to get into university. “In Hong Kong, it would be unthinkable to not do mathematics in Grade 12,” says Cappon. “In Canada, not only is it not unthinkable, most kids do drop it.”

Remember that math problem we started with? Give yourself full marks if you answered 1,275,1,276 or 1,275-75. M