Canada benchmarked against 15 countries
Students With High-Level Reading Skills
- Canada gets a “A” grade and ranks 3rd out of 16 peer countries.
- The share of Canadian students with high-level reading skills has fallen since Canada first participated in the PISA reading section in 2000.
- Despite the smaller share, Canada moved from a "B" in the 2006 test to an "A" in 2009. This is because Finland, the top performer, also had a lower share of students with high-level reading skills in 2009.
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 reading, math, and science skills that will help them to succeed in life.
A report on Canada’s results on the PISA tests highlights the importance of these skills:
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. The shift to a 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 knowledge and skills that the present and future economy requires. This includes a rising demand for a strong set of foundation skills upon which further learning is built.1
What kind of reading skills does PISA test?
The reading skills that PISA measures are much broader than the basic ability to read. They include the ability understand and use the information in a text in range of situations and for different purposes.
Since comparatively few young adults in OECD countries have not acquired technical reading skills, PISA does not seek to measure such things as the extent to which 15-year-old students are fluent readers or how well they spell or recognize words. In line with most contemporary views about reading literacy, 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.2
What are high-level reading skills?
PISA reading skills are measured on a continuum, with level 6 the highest and level 1 the lowest. Students are considered to have high-level reading skills if they test at level 4 or above. The percentage of students with high-level reading skills is of interest because “today’s proportion of students performing at these levels may influence the contribution which that country will make towards the pool of tomorrow’s world-class knowledge workers in the global economy.”3
How do the high-level reading skills of Canadian students compare to those of Canada's peers?
Canadian students are among the best in the world when it comes to reading skills; nearly 40 per cent of Canadian students scored at level 4 or above on the PISA assessment in 2009. This performance puts Canada in third place overall, achieving a “A” grade. Only Finland and Japan performed better than Canada.
Do more Canadian students have high-level reading skills than in the past?
The OECD has conducted four PISA reading tests—in 2000, 2003, 2006, and 2009. Canada’s performance has deteriorated since the initial test in 2000, when 44.5 per cent of 15-year-old students scored high in reading. In 2009, 39.5 per cent scored high—a drop of 5 percentage points. Canada fell from 2nd place in 2000 to 3rd spot in 2009, overtaken by Japan. Despite this, Canada moved up from a “B” grade in 2006 to an “A” grade in 2009. This was because Finland, the top performer, also had a smaller proportion of students with high-level reading skills. This meant the bar was lower for a country to get an “A.”
Finland has maintained its 1st-place ranking since testing began in 2000. It’s the only country to have achieved an “A” grade in each of the four years of PISA testing.
Does PISA reading performance results predict future educational success?
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.”4
Results from the Youth in Transition Survey, by Statistics Canada, show a strong association between reading proficiency and education attainment: Canadian students in the top PISA level of reading performance were 20 times more likely to go to university than those in the lowest PISA level.5 The study also found that reading scores of 15-year-old students were an important predictor of earnings.6
1 Tamara Knighton, Pierre Brochu, and Tomasz Gluszynski, Measuring Up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2010), 9.
2 OECD, Learning for Tomorrow’s World: First Results from PISA 2003 (Paris: OECD, 2004), 279.
3 OECD, Learning for Tomorrow’s World: First Results from PISA 2003 (Paris: OECD, 2004), 276–77.
4 OECD, PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do—Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science, Volume 1 (Paris: OECD, 2010), 32.
5 Tamara Knighton, Pierre Brochu, and Tomasz Gluszynski, Measuring Up: Canadian Results of the OECD PISA Study (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2010), 9.
6 OECD, PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do—Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science, Volume 1 (Paris: OECD, 2010), 33.
Education and Skills Indicators