Canadian students are lagging in mathematics compared to their international peers, according to global rankings compiled by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The test is conducted every three years and measures 15-year-olds in the subjects of math, science and reading. During the latest round of assessments, PISA placed its focus on math, with fewer questions devoted to science and reading. 

The assessment was released on Tuesday and revealed that Canada’s overall scores have declined by 35 points from 2003 to 2022. 

In the area of math, only 12% of Canadian students ranked as high achievers, scoring at Level 5 or 6. In Singapore, 41% of students scored at the top level, in Hong Kong, it was 27% and in Japan and South Korea, it was 23%. 

In 2022, the test was conducted in 81 countries, with Canada enrolling 23,000 high-school students to participate. The test helps guide curriculum changes and future policy decisions around education and also serves as a review of government action. 

With Canadian math scores steadily declining over the years, math pedagogy has been a focus of debate amongst parents, politicians and educators. 

Some experts and parents have been campaigning for a back-to-basics approach, with more of an emphasis on math’s fundamentals as opposed to an inquiry-model, that uses pattern discovery and problem-solving to educate in a more open-ended fashion. 

The OECD’s director for education and skills, Andreas Schleicher, said that the declining math scores should be a cause for alarm. 

However, the latest drop in scores cannot be attributed to the pandemic because scores have been in decline for nearly 20 years.

“The world requires a lot more mathematics these days. If you do not understand an exponential function, you’re not going to follow the discussion on climate change or the evolution of a pandemic,” said Schleicher in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

“We should be seeing rising outcomes, because the demands in our societies are dramatically rising, and we are seeing falling outcomes.”

The PISA math test can measure students’ ability to problem solve and their mathematical reasoning. 

According to the latest results, 78% of Canadian students scored at or above Level 2, which is considered the baseline level of math literacy for one to fully participate in modern society. 

Across all OECD countries, 68% of students scored at or above Level 2, with the top performing countries being Singapore, Japan and Hong Kong, at 85%.

In a global context, Canada scores well, behind only eight other jurisdictions in the math category, ranking behind Singapore, Macao (China), Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong (China), Japan, Korea, Estonia and Switzerland.

Regardless, math scores have steadily declined across all Canadian provinces since 2003 and one in five Canadian students performed at the lowest level, below Level 2. 

Male students outperformed female students and immigrant students scored higher than non-immigrant students. 

Within the provinces, students from Quebec performed the highest in math, while students in Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia scored above the OECD average. 

Students in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan performed around the OECD average and students in Newfoundland and Labrador scored below it.

Mathematics professor at the University of Winnipeg, Anna Stokke, has been calling for schools to take the back-basics approach to math, saying that educators continue using “ineffective philosophies based on inquiry-based learning.” 

“You can’t fix a problem by doubling down on methods that don’t work,” said Stokke. “Problem-solving skills are developed by building up foundational skills and techniques through a lot of practice. They cannot be taught in isolation.”