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.
The OECD defines math skills as “an individual’s capacity to formulate, employ and interpret mathematics in a variety of contexts. This includes reasoning mathematically and using mathematical concepts, procedures, facts and tools to describe, explain and predict phenomena. Mathematical literacy also helps individuals recognise the role that mathematics plays in the world and make the well-founded judgements and decisions needed by constructive, engaged and reflective citizens.”1
In its report on the 2006 PISA results, the OECD outlines the importance of math skills in today’s world:
With the growing role of science, mathematics and technology in modern life, the objectives of personal fulfilment, employment and full participation in society increasingly require that all adults, not just those aspiring to a scientific career, should be mathematically, scientifically and technologically literate. The performance of a country’s best students in mathematics and related subjects may have implications for the role that that country will play in tomorrow’s advanced technology sector, and for its overall international competitiveness. Conversely, deficiencies among lower-performing students in mathematics can have negative consequences for individuals’ labour-market and earnings prospects and for their capacity to participate fully in society.2
An outstanding issue is whether high results on the PISA math tests set students on a path to pursue advanced credentials in related fields. Over time, we might expect to see a relationship between these scores and the number of graduates in science, math, computer science and engineering.
Eighteen per cent of Canadian students who participated in the PISA test in 2009 scored at the highest levels. Canada scores a “B” and ranks 6th out of 16 countries. Switzerland comes in first, with 24 per cent of its students achieving high scores on the PISA math test.
Canada’s ranking in high-level math skills (6th place) is weaker than in low-level math skills (2nd place).
Results from the Youth in Transition Survey, by Statistics Canada, show a positive relationship between the math skills of 15-year-old students and the likelihood of completing further education. The effects of improving math skills are “in most cases statistically significant and also quantitatively important.”3
There were, however, gender differences. For females, the effect of improving math skills had a stronger positive effect on high-school completion. For males, the effect was strong on completing some post-secondary education.4
1 OECD, PISA 2009 Results: What Students Know and Can Do—Student Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science. Volume I (Paris: OECD, 2010), 122.
2 OECD, PISA 2006: Science Competencies for Tomorrow’s World, Volume 1: Analysis (Paris: OECD, 2007), 322-23.
3 OECD, Pathways to Success: How Knowledge and Skills at Age 15 Shape Future Lives in Canada (Paris: OECD, 2010), 67.
4 OECD, Pathways to Success: How Knowledge and Skills at Age 15 Shape Future Lives in Canada (Paris: OECD, 2010), 67.