Adults With Inadequate Numeracy Skills
- Overall, Canada earns a “C” grade on inadequate numeracy skills.
- Fifty-five per cent of Canadian adults have inadequate numeracy skills—a significant increase from a decade ago.
- No province earns above a “C” grade for inadequate numeracy skills.
Why are numeracy skills important?
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
The ongoing push to develop numeracy skills in children, youth, and adults is indicative of the value of numeracy to individuals’ ability to get and keep a job and to manage their quality of life (e.g., to understand personal finances or directions on a package of medicine). Inadequate numeracy skills hurt individuals’ potential for landing jobs and promotions and hurt the economy through missed opportunities for innovation and productivity. Further, inadequate numeracy skills present a risk for health and safety incidents in the workplace: health and safety documents often include instructions and information in the form of charts, numbers, and conditional statements. Individuals with inadequate numeracy skills may not be able to understand written manuals, warning symbols, and instructions provided in the workplace.2 There is also a risk that inadequate numeracy in some workplace settings might endanger public health and safety.
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.3
There is strong interest in tracking numeracy skills trends in the population to better understand where interventions would be most effective. Through the Pan-Canadian Assessment Program, the reading, math, and science skills of Grade 8 students are tested every three years in every Canadian province.4 Canada participates in at least two ongoing international studies of numeracy skills: TIMSS and PISA. For the past 20 years, the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) survey has measured international mathematics and science skills at grades 4 and 8.5 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests the reading, math, and science skills of 15 year olds about every three years.6 The OECD has tracked the numeracy skills of adults for the past 20 years, most recently through the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) study.
Beyond the elementary and secondary school systems, there are other avenues for adults to develop numeracy skills. For instance, some provincial governments have offices dedicated to adult skills development, and these often help employers raise numeracy skills in the workplace. The federal government’s Office of Literacy and Essential Skills funds research on how best to design and deliver numeracy training to adults; it also shares success stories and tools for numeracy skills assessment and development.7
How are numeracy skills measured?
For the purposes of the PIAAC, numeracy is 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.”8
In the latest international comparison study, the numeracy skills of adults between the ages of 16 and 65 in each participating country were 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.
A person should have at least level 3 numeracy to function well in Canadian society, according to Employment and Social Development Canada.9 The Conference Board of Canada considers numeracy skills below level 3 to be inadequate.
How do Canada and the provinces rank relative to international peers?
Overall, Canada earns a “C” grade on the share of adults with inadequate numeracy skills in the latest international comparison study. Fifty-five per cent of Canadian adults score at the lowest two levels for numeracy skills. This total includes 32.1 per cent at level 2, 16.6 per cent at level 1, and 6 per cent of the adult population scoring below level 1. This implies that a sizable proportion of the adult population—almost a third—are at level 2 and could potentially reach level 3 with limited assistance. Another 22 per cent, who are at level 1 or below, would need significant assistance and training to reach level 3.
Breaking down the study results by province reveals that no province earns above a “C” grade for inadequate numeracy skills. British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, and Saskatchewan each earn a “C” grade. The remaining provinces earn “D”s.
Internationally, Japan, Flanders (Belgium), the Netherlands, Finland, and Norway earn “A” grades for the relatively low proportion of the adult population with inadequate levels of numeracy. Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Germany, and Australia each earn a “B” grade on this indicator—a higher grade than that earned by Canada as a whole and by any individual Canadian province.
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.”10
The results are mixed. British Columbia is the sole above-average performer. Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick are below-average provinces, with about two-thirds (66 and 63 per cent, respectively) of adults with inadequate numeracy skills in each province.
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.11 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.12
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, immigrants, both recent and established, are much more likely than Canadian-born individuals to have inadequate numeracy skills. For example, 62 per cent of recent immigrants (those arriving in Canada within the last 10 years) and 63 per cent of established immigrant (those who have lived in Canada for more than 10 years) in British Columbia had inadequate numeracy 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.
Overall, the shares of recent and established immigrants with inadequate numeracy are relatively similar.
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 2001.13 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.14 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.15 PIAAC oversampled the Aboriginal population to better assess the skills of this diverse population. Only Aboriginal people living off reserve participated in the test.16
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 more likely to have inadequate numeracy skills than the non-Aboriginal population. The gap is highest in Saskatchewan, where 79 per cent of the Aboriginal population have inadequate numeracy skills compared with 54 per cent of the non-Aboriginal population.
While the gap is alarming, it is promising to note that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people with similar levels of education have similar skills levels.17 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 inadequate 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.18 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 national level. Further work is being done to permit more detailed breakdowns by province.19 The re-estimated data reveal that, in 2003, 49 per cent of adults had inadequate numeracy skills.20 That number jumped to 55 per cent in 2012. Despite efforts to improve adult numeracy rates in Canada, the share of adults with inadequate numeracy skills has increased over the past 10 years.
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 Alison Campbell, What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You: Literacy’s Impact on Workplace Health and Safety (Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2010), 2–3, 19.
3 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.
6 OECD, PISA 2012 Assessment and Analytical Framework: Mathematics, Reading, Science, Problem Solving, and Financial Literacy (Paris: OECD, 2013), 25.
8 OECD, OECD Skills Outlook 2013: First Results From the Survey of Adult Skills (Paris: OECD, 2013), 59.
9 Employment and Social Development Canada, Learning—Adult Numeracy.
10 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.
11 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.
16 Of the 1,400,685 people with an Aboriginal identity in 2011, about 1,086,319 (78 per cent) lived off reserve.
18 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.
19 Ibid., 55.
20 Ibid., 99.