Putting student science skills in context
The growing role of science, math, and technology in everyday life means science skills are important for all students, not just those aspiring to a career in the sciences. This is a significant shift from the past, when school curricula were dominated by the need to provide the foundations for the professional training of a small number of mathematicians, scientists, and engineers.1
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.2 There have been three comparable PISA assessments of science skills—in 2006, 2009, and 2012.
The OECD notes that “an understanding of science and technology is central to a young person’s preparedness for life in modern society, not least because it empowers individuals to participate in determining public policy where issues of science and technology affect their lives.”3
The science component of the PISA test gauges the extent to which students have learned fundamental scientific concepts and theories. It also measures the capacity of students to identify scientific issues, explain phenomena scientifically, and use scientific evidence as they encounter, interpret, and solve real-life problems involving science and technology. This approach reflects the reality of how globalization and computerization are changing societies and labour markets.
Basic competencies in science are generally considered essential to be able to use new technology, while high-level competencies are critical for the creation of new technology and innovation. This makes the acquisition of science skills through the core education system integral to a country’s ability to be successful in the new knowledge economy.
What are inadequate science skills?
PISA science skills are measured on a continuum, with level 6 the highest and level 1 the lowest. The Conference Board regards students as having inadequate science skills if they test at level 2 or below. Students performing at level 1 “have such a limited scientific knowledge that it can only be applied to a few, familiar situations. They can present scientific explanations that are obvious and follow explicitly from given evidence.”4
Although students performing at level 2 “have adequate scientific knowledge to provide possible explanations in familiar contexts or draw conclusions based on simple investigations” and “are capable of direct reasoning and making literal interpretations of the results of scientific inquiry or technological problem solving,”5 their science skills leave them poorly prepared to participate effectively and productively in Canada’s advanced economy.
How do the provinces rank relative to Canada’s international peers?
Taken as a whole, Canada compares reasonably well to international peers. With just over 31 per cent of Canadian 15 year olds scoring at level 2 or below on PISA’s science test, Canada achieves a grade of “B” and lags only Finland and Japan among international peers.
At a provincial level, British Columbia and Alberta earn a grade of “A,” while five other provinces achieve a grade of “B” relative to international comparator countries.6 Two provinces earn “C” grades, and only one—P.E.I.—gets a “D.” Internationally, P.E.I. is in the company of Norway (44.5 per cent), the United States (44.8 per cent), and Sweden (48.5 per cent)—all of which earn “D” grades.
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.”7 There is significant variation across the country.
British Columbia (24.6 per cent) Alberta (26.9 per cent) are above-average performers. By contrast, 41 per cent of students in Manitoba and 44.6 per cent of students in P.E.I. have inadequate science skills, making those provinces below-average performers.
How have provincial inadequate science skills changed over time?
Between 2006 and 2012, the proportion of Canadian students with inadequate science skills increased in six provinces, but fell in four—albeit marginally in some cases. British Columbia improved the most, with a decrease of nearly 3 percentage points (from 27.5 to 24.6 per cent) between 2006 to 2012, moving the province from a “B” to an “A” grade relative to international comparators. New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia each improved marginally, but enough to boost their grades by one letter.
By contrast, science performance declined in most provinces between 2006 and 2012. In P.E.I., for example, the proportion of students with inadequate science skills increased from 39.6 to 44.6 per cent, reducing the province’s grade from a “C” to a “D.” Manitoba’s proportion of students with inadequate science skills increased from 31.6 to 41.1 per cent, causing its grade to fall from “B” to “C.”
Does the scientific literacy of ordinary Canadians matter?
Science skills and scientific literacy are essential in our advanced economy and society. Even Canadians who do not work in the sciences directly will need higher levels of scientific literacy as work, life, and politics become increasingly technical and focused on tasks and issues that require more than a basic understanding of science. As the OECD observes:
Scientific literacy matters at both the national and international level as humanity faces major challenges in providing sufficient water and food, controlling diseases, generating sufficient energy and adapting to climate change. Many of these issues arise, however, at the local level where individuals may be faced with decisions about practices that affect their own health and food supplies, the appropriate use of materials and new technologies, and decisions about energy use....Yet...the solutions to political and ethical dilemmas involving science and technology “cannot be the subject of informed debate unless young people possess certain scientific awareness.”8
Although experts will continue to require greater scientific awareness and technical skills than the average citizen, the nature of economic, social, and individual issues and well-being now requires much more of ordinary citizens than they once did.