Provincial and Territorial Ranking

Students With High-Level Reading Skills

Key Messages

  • No Canadian province earns an “A” grade on high-level reading skills.
  • Four provinces earn “B”s, and five earn “D” or “D–″ grades.
  • The proportion of students with high-level reading skills declined in every province from 2000 to 2012, leaving fewer students prepared for success in higher education and the labour market.

Putting student reading skills in context

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international assessment of the skills and knowledge of 15 year olds, coordinated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It assesses whether students approaching the end of compulsory education have acquired the skills that are essential for full participation in modern society, particularly in mathematics, reading, and science.1 There have been five comparable PISA assessments of reading skills—in 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2012.

PISA defines reading literacy as “an individual’s capacity to understand, use, reflect on, and engage with written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, develop one’s knowledge and potential, and participate in society.” 2

The share of students with high-level reading skills is of interest because “those who get to this level can be regarded as potential ‘world class’ knowledge workers of tomorrow, making the proportion of a country’s students reaching this level relevant for its future economic competitiveness.”3

What kind of reading skills does PISA test?

The reading skills that PISA measures are much broader than the basic ability to read, spell, and recognize words. Reading literacy focuses on the ability of students to use written information in real-life situations.4 Working with the view that reading is an activity that supports other purposes, “PISA focuses on measuring the extent to which individuals are able to construct, expand and reflect on the meaning of what they have read in a wide range of texts common both within and beyond school.”5

Reading, as defined here, is understood as a skill that can be used or applied to make sense of various written materials and, in turn, can assist in other practical activities.

What are high-level reading skills?

PISA reading skills are measured on a continuum, with level 6 the highest and level 1b the lowest. The Conference Board regards students as having high-level reading skills if they test at level 5 or above. At level 5, students can:

handle texts that are unfamiliar in either form or content. They can find information in such texts, demonstrate detailed understanding, and infer which information is relevant to the task. They are also able to critically evaluate such texts and build hypotheses about them, drawing on specialised knowledge and accommodating concepts that may be contrary to expectations.6

How do the provinces rank relative to Canada’s international peers?

Taken as a whole, Canada compares reasonably well to international peers. With nearly 13 per cent of Canadian 15 year olds scoring at level 5 or above on PISA’s reading test, Canada lags only Japan, Finland, and France among international peers. However, because Japan performs so well (with 18.5 per cent of students with high level reading skills), Canada—along with Finland and France—earns only a “B” grade.

With nearly 14.7 per cent of its students showing high-level reading skills, British Columbia leads all provinces, and trails only Japan internationally, earning it a “B” grade.7 Ontario and Alberta also compare favourably to other provinces and international peers. Ontario’s proportion of students with high-level reading skills (14.1 per cent) and Alberta’s (13.8 per cent) are better than the Canadian average (12.9 per cent), and earn those provinces grades of “B” relative to international peer countries. Quebec also fares reasonably well, with 12.2 per cent of students with high-level reading skills—just below the Canadian average and enough to earn the province a “B” in the international comparator group.

By contrast, four of the remaining six provinces receive “D” grades. In New Brunswick, only 7 per cent and in Manitoba only 7.5 per cent have high-level reading skills. Internationally, these provinces are in the company of the U.S. and Sweden (7.9 per cent for both), Austria (5.5 per cent), and Denmark (5.4 per cent)—all of which earn grades of “D.”

Only 5.2 per cent of students in Prince Edward Island have high-level reading skills, placing that province last among provincial and international jurisdictions. Because the province scores lower than any international peer, P.E.I. receives a “D–″ grade.

How do the provinces perform relative to each other?

In addition to ranking the provinces against Canada’s international peers, the provinces have been compared with each other and placed into three categories: “above average,” “average,” and “below average.”8

There is significant variation across the country. British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta are the above-average performers while P.E.I. is the sole below-average province.

How have provincial high-level reading skills changed over time?

Since 2000, the proportion of Canadian students with high-level reading skills has dropped in every province. In Alberta, for example, the percentage of students with high-level reading skills was 22.5 per cent in 2000, earning the province a grade of “A+” relative to international peer countries. By 2012, however, the proportion of Alberta’s students with high-level reading skills dropped to 13.8 per cent, earning a grade of “B” relative to international peers. In Manitoba, the proportion of students with high-level reading skills decreased by over half, from 15.9 per cent in 2000 to 7.5 per cent in 2012. Consequently, Manitoba shifted from an “A” to a “D” relative to international comparator countries.

P.E.I.’s proportion of students with high-level reading skills also fell dramatically from 13.1 per cent in 2000 to only 5.2 per cent in 2012. Relative to international comparator countries, P.E.I. fell from an already low “C” to a “D–” grade. Given its very low proportion of high-level readers and very high proportion of low-level readers, P.E.I.’s situation requires immediate attention.

Is there a difference in the reading performance of boys and girls?

While a breakdown of the results into six proficiency levels is not available at the provincial level by gender, we can compare the differences in the average scores of boys and girls on the PISA reading test. Girls outperformed boys on the PISA 2012 reading test in all provinces. The average Canadian score on the test was 541 for girls (out of 1,000) and 506 for boys, resulting in a gender gap of 35 points. The gender gap favouring girls was highest in Newfoundland and Labrador (53 points) and lowest in British Columbia (26 points).

Do PISA reading performance results predict future educational success?

In a report published by Canada’s Council of Ministers of Education, the authors link high performance on the core set of foundational skills that PISA measures to a number of individual and societal goals:

The skills and knowledge that individuals bring to their jobs, to further studies, and to our society play an important role in determining our economic success and our overall quality of life. Today’s knowledge-based economy—driven by advances in information and communication technologies, reduced trade barriers, and the globalization of markets—has precipitated changes in the type of competencies that the present and future economy requires. This includes a rising demand for a core set of foundational skills upon which further learning is built.9

The OECD reports that “levels of reading literacy are more reliable predictors of economic and social well-being than is the quantity of education as measured by years at school or in post-school education.”10

Previous studies based on PISA data have shown a link between reading skills at age 15 and outcomes in later life. For example, results from Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transition Survey show a strong association between reading proficiency and educational attainment: Canadian students in the top PISA level of reading performance were much more likely to finish high school and were 20 times more likely to go to university than those in the lowest PISA level. The study also found that reading scores of 15-year-old students were an important predictor of earnings.11

Footnotes

1    OECD, PISA 2012 Assessment and Analytical Framework: Mathematics, Reading, Science, Problem Solving, and Financial Literacy (Paris: OECD, 2013), 25.

2     Ibid., 28.

3    OECD, PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do—Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics, and Science, Volume 1 (Paris: OECD, 2010), 51.

4    OECD, PISA 2012 Assessment and Analytical Framework: Mathematics, Reading, Science, Problem Solving, and Financial Literacy (Paris: OECD, 2013), 176.

5    OECD, Learning for Tomorrow’s World: First Results from PISA 2003 (Paris: OECD, 2004), 279.

6    OECD, PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do—Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics, and Science, Volume 1 (Paris: OECD, 2010), 51.

7    No data were collected in the three territories and in First Nations schools.

8    To compare the performance of Canadian provinces relative to one another, we first determined the average score and standard deviation of the provincial values. The standard deviation is a measure of how much variability there is in a set of numbers. If the numbers are normally distributed (i.e., the distribution is not heavily weighted to one side or another and/or does not have significant outliers), about 68 per cent will fall within one standard deviation above or below the average. Any province scoring one standard deviation above the average is “above average.” Provinces scoring less than the average minus one standard deviation are “below average.” The remaining provinces are “average” performers.

9    Pierre Brochu, Marie-Anne Deussing, Koffi Houme, and Maria Chuy, Measuring Up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study (Toronto: Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, 2013), 9.

10    OECD, PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do—Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics, and Science, Volume 1 (Paris: OECD, 2010), 32.

11    Pierre Brochu, Marie-Anne Deussing, Koffi Houme, and Maria Chuy, Measuring Up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study (Toronto: Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, 2013), 10.

Image of an open book Definition

The percentage of 15-year-old students scoring at level 5 or 6 on the reading section of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test.

Please note:
The data on this page are current as of June 2014.