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How Canada is becoming outclassed in school

After nearly a decade of leading international test scores in reading, writing and mathematics, Canada is finding that it's no longer lonely at the top. Korea and China are leaving us in the chalk dust while our smaller provinces are dragging down the scores.

Measured against 65 other countries, Canada places fifth overall in reading, seventh in science and eighth in mathematics in the Organization for Co-operation and Economic Development's education assessment released Tuesday.

An analysis of Canada's performance reveals that Prince Edward Island has become the first Canadian province to fall below the average of other OECD nations in students' reading proficiency. Manitoba scraped by with a score nearly identical to the OECD average.

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Measured at three-year intervals, the slips in Canada's scores are small, barely statistically significant. But the competition is getting stiff. Between 2000 and 2009, when the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) was conducted, Canada posted a 10-point decline in reading scores while Korea managed a 15-point gain.

Overall, Canada's scores were 2 per cent lower. Just 40 per cent of the Canadian students who wrote the test last year achieved top scores in reading, compared with 45 per cent in 2000.

"That's driving the decline overall: It's not that the majority is doing worse, it's that the elite is doing worse and we don't have as many at that level," said Paul Cappon, president of the Canadian Council on Learning. "That's a source of concern."

Elite performers are an important economic driver, he said.

Quebec emerged as a Canadian leader in math scores, while Albertans topped the science and reading tests.

Girls outperformed boys in reading tests in every country and in every Canadian province. That gap was greatest, close to 10 per cent of total scores, in PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador.

"It's time to take a leap and look at what strengths in reading we can bring in particular to our boys," said Denis Mildon, a literacy expert and education consultant.

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Because they represent close to half the population, boys provide an excellent target for efforts aimed at improving Canada's PISA scores.

Though Canada may be slipping in the overall ranks, our education system remains one of the most equitable in the world, as students perform well regardless of their background or where their school is located. Canada's system also remains one of the most cost-effective, as we spend less per student than countries such as the United States and Britain but attain better academic outcomes.

The OECD's tests are administered once every three years with an alternating focus on reading, math and science. For PISA 2009, close to 500,000 15-year-olds were tested, including 23,000 Canadian students from 1,000 schools from all the provinces.

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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