Provincial and Territorial Ranking

Adults With High-Level Numeracy Skills

Key Messages

  • Overall, Canada earns a “C” grade for its share of people with high-level numeracy skills.
  • Thirteen per cent of Canadian adults score at the highest levels for numeracy skills—a slight deterioration from a decade ago.
  • Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario each earn a “B” grade for high-level numeracy skills, while all other provinces earn a “C” or “D” grade.

Why are numeracy skills important?

Numeracy skills—along with literacy skills and problem-solving skills in a technology-rich environment—affect both economic and social well-being.

Given the centrality of written communication and basic mathematics in virtually all areas of life, coupled with the rapid integration of ICT [information and communications technology], individuals must be able to understand, process, and respond to textual and numerical information, print and digital, if they are to participate fully in society—whether as citizens, family members, consumers, or employees.1

Numeracy skills provide the basis for developing higher-order skills, such as those demanded for higher education and training and successful participation in the labour market. Numeracy proficiency affects an individual’s ability to find and keep a job and earn higher wages.2

Numeracy skills are also critical for businesses, as these skills underpin innovative capacity. High-level numeracy skills—along with technical and other higher-order skills—allow for the transformative processes of innovation to occur. Firms consistently rate employee skills as one of the top four factors needed for innovation success.3

But adequate literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills are not only an economic issue.

They also have profound consequences for such broad domestic considerations as economic disparities between different groups; health outcomes; levels of political engagement; and the degree to which people feel integrated into, or isolated from, society.4

In recognition of the importance of numeracy to social and civic life and to the economy, the numeracy skills of adults have been measured and tracked on an international scale for over two decades, most recently through the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) study.

How are numeracy skills measured?

For the purposes of the PIAAC, numeracy skills are defined as “the ability to to access, use, interpret, and communicate mathematical information and ideas in order to engage in and manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in adult life.”5 Respondents are measured for “their ability to engage with mathematical information in order to manage the mathematical demands of a range of situations in everyday life. This requires understanding mathematical content and ideas (e.g., quantities, numbers, dimensions, relationships), and the representation of that content (e.g., objects, pictures, diagrams, graphs).”6

In the latest international comparison study, the numeracy skills of adults between the ages of 16 and 65 in each participating country are assessed over a continuum of ability using a measurement scale ranging from 0 to 500. The scores were then divided into six proficiency levels: levels 1 through 5 plus below level 1. The Conference Board regards adults as having high-level numeracy skills if they test at levels 4 or 5. Individuals with high-level numeracy skills can “understand complex mathematical information and work with mathematical arguments and models.”7

How do Canada and the provinces rank relative to international peers?

Overall, Canada earns a “C” grade on the share of adults with high-level numeracy skills in the latest international comparison study. Thirteen per cent of Canadian adults are considered to have high-level numeracy skills, placing Canada on par with the OECD average, but below many peer countries.8

Breaking down the study results by province reveals that no province earns an “A” grade, and only Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario earn “B” grades for high-level numeracy skills. Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec each earn a “C” grade. The remaining provinces (i.e., Saskatchewan Newfoundland and Labrador, and New Brunswick) earn “D”s.

Internationally, seven peer countries earn “A” grades for the proportion of their adult population with high-level numeracy skills. Austria and Germany each earn a “B” on this indicator—a higher grade than that earned by Canada as a whole and matched by only three provinces.

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.” 9

The results are mixed. Only Alberta is considered an above-average performer, while Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick—each with less than 9 per cent of adults with high-level numeracy skills—are below-average provinces.

How do immigrants perform on the numeracy test?

Canada has a diverse population. According to data from the 2011 National Household Survey, 22 per cent of the population aged 16–65 are immigrants.10 Immigrants are not evenly dispersed across the country. Eighty-five per cent of all immigrants to Canada live in three provinces: Ontario (53.3 per cent), British Columbia (17.6 per cent), and Quebec (14.4 per cent). The remaining 15 per cent of immigrants live in the other seven provinces and three territories.11

It is important to assess how immigrants are faring on skills, particularly in those three provinces where immigrants account for a large portion of the working-age population. In general, a much smaller proportion of the immigrant population have high-level numeracy skills than the Canadian-born population. For example, in Ontario, the province with the highest share of immigrants, only 8.4 per cent of recent immigrants (those arriving in Canada within the last 10 years) have high-level literacy skills. This does not mean that these immigrants have poor literacy skills in their native language; however, they are performing poorly in one of Canada’s official languages, either English or French.

Time lived in Canada has some impact on the share of immigrants with high literacy; in Ontario, the share increases to 9.5 per cent for immigrants who have lived in Canada for more than 10 years. The share, however, is still much lower than the 15.6 per cent for those born in Canada.

These general results hold in the other two provinces with large immigrant population and for Canada as a whole. The one exception is that recent immigrants do as well as established immigrants in British Columbia.

How do Aboriginal people fare on the numeracy test?

The Aboriginal population in Canada is growing. In 2011, 4.3 per cent of the Canadian population identified as Aboriginal on the National Household Survey, up from 3.3 per cent in 2001.12 About 61 per cent of Aboriginal people identified as First Nations (with about half of those individuals living on reserves), 32 per cent identified as Métis only, and 4.2 per cent identified as Inuit only.13 It is also important to note that almost 15 per cent of Aboriginal people report having an Aboriginal language as their mother tongue, likely affecting their performance on the PIAAC tests, which are administered in only English or French.14 PIAAC oversampled the Aboriginal population to better assess the skills of this diverse population. Only Aboriginal people living off reserve participated in the test.15

Detailed data are available on the performance of Aboriginal people in Canada as a whole and in four provinces: Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. Overall, Aboriginal people are much less likely to have high-level numeracy skills than the non-Aboriginal population. The worst performance, for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations, is in Saskatchewan. British Columbia and Manitoba have the highest share of Aboriginal people with high-level numeracy skills—slightly ahead of Ontario.

While the gap between the shares of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal populations with high-level numeracy skills is alarming, it is promising to note that the gap narrows once educational levels are taken into account.16 Clearly, improving education outcomes is an important factor in improving the skills of the Aboriginal population. However, much more thorough and sensitive analysis is needed to fully understand both the reasons for the gap and the actions and policies needed to close the gap.

Have high-level numeracy rates changed over time?

International comparisons of adult numeracy skills have been conducted from time to time over the past two decades. Unfortunately, a direct comparison among the results is not possible for a number of reasons, including the fact that significantly more data was used to construct the numeracy scale for PIAAC.17 However, Statistics Canada re-estimated and re-scaled the data from the 2003 Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL) to enable comparison at the Canada level. Further work is being done to permit more detailed breakdowns by province.18 The re-estimated data reveal that, in 2003, 14 per cent of adults had high-level numeracy skills. That number dropped to 13 per cent in 2012. Despite efforts to improve adult numeracy rates in Canada, high-level numeracy outcomes have not improved in the past 10 years.19

Footnotes

1    Statistics Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, and Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, Skills in Canada: First Results From the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Catalogue no. 89-555-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2013), 5.

2    OECD, OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results From the Survey of Adult Skills (Paris: OECD, 2013), 24.

3    Douglas Watt and Daniel Munro, Skills for Business Innovation Success: It’s People Who Innovate. (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2014), 15.

4    Statistics Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, and Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, Skills in Canada: First Results From the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Catalogue no. 89-555-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2013), 5.

5    OECD, OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results From the Survey of Adult Skills (Paris: OECD, 2013), 59.

6    Statistics Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, and Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, Skills in Canada: First Results From the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Catalogue no. 89-555-X [hyperlink: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/89-555-x/89-555-x2013001-eng.htm] (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2013), 8.

7    Ibid., 18.

8    Ibid.

9    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.

10    Statistics Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, and Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, Skills in Canada: First Results From the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Catalogue no. 89-555-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2013), 46.

11    Statistics Canada, Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity in Canada, Catalogue no. 99-010-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2014).

12    Statistics Canada, Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, Catalogue no. 99-011-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2014).

13    Ibid.

14    Statistics Canada, Aboriginal Peoples and Language, Catalogue no. 99-011-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2014).

15    Of the 1,400,685 people with an Aboriginal identity in 2011, about 1,086,319 (78 per cent) lived off reserve.

16    Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, “PIAAC in Canada,” Slide Presentation, 2013.

17    Statistics Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, and Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, Skills in Canada: First Results From the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Catalogue no. 89-555-X (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 2013), 53.

18    Ibid., 55.

19    Ibid., 99.

Image of an open book Definition

The percentage of adults scoring at level 4 or 5 on the numeracy test of the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC).

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