at Our Students Science Ranking
A critical look at the international
test scores shows that, contrary to what todays
headlines say, our students do extremely well. We
educate more of them than do countries that scored
higher than Canada. In fact, Canada ranks at the top
when it comes to the percentage of its citizens who
complete primary, secondary and tertiary education.
By Joe Calabrese and Nick Forte
We are all bombarded by
attacks that claim Ontario has failed to meet the
standards in math and science.
Even in the September
Professionally Speaking, Bonnie Schmidt stated that
international testing ranked Canada in the middle of
the pack and Ontario students trailed the pack in
science and mathematics. Schmidt, however, was
drawing a conclusion that a closer examination of the
international test scores refutes.
Further analysis would
have shown Canadian students are in an education
system that has a high quality and level of
inclusion. This fact needs to be taken into account
when drawing conclusions from test scores and
The ranking came from
the Third International Mathematics and Science Study
(TIMSS), the largest, most comprehensive
international study of schools and students. During
the 1995 school year, data was collected in 30
languages from a half million students in 41
countries to compare their achievement in math and
TIMSS is a complex study
with a variety of interrelated components. It was
designed to focus on students at three stages: midway
through elementary school, midway through lower
secondary school, and at the end of upper secondary
school. Although many professionals, testing experts,
and teachers have questioned the validity of this
type of testing, it is probably safe to assume that
the results do represent student knowledge.
at the Context
Yet, if you examine the
context, you begin to see inequalities in the samples
of students used in the 41 countries. Interpreting
the results is far more complex than it first
appears. The chart lists the countries that equaled
or bettered Canadas score in the math and
science test. It also includes the Human Development
Index (1994), the percentage of students enrolled in
schools, those enrolled in secondary schools, the
percentage that proceed to post-secondary and
graduate education, and the TIMSS scores in science.
These studies show that Canada is in the top 11 in
In the first column, the
Human Development Index lists Canada as number one.
This index is used by the United Nations as a measure
of longevity, knowledge and standard of living.
Longevity is defined as life expectancy at birth.
Knowledge is measured by the combination of adult
literacy (two-thirds) and mean years of schooling
(one-third). Standard of living is based on
purchasing power of the individual.
The 1994 UN report shows
that Canadians live longer, have a higher standard of
living, and greater access to a higher level of
quality education than other countries. Countries
such as Singapore, Bulgaria, and Korea score lower
than we do on the Human Development Index, but higher
on the science portion of the TIMSS study.
Why do they score higher
in science? Are they better educated than Canadians?
Or do those countries test only a selected
The UN uses human
development indicators to track student enrolment. In
the second column, enrolment is listed for all levels
as a percentage of six-to-23-year-olds. You can see
that countries such as Singapore, Bulgaria, and Korea
may score higher in science, but they educate far
fewer students than we do. Singapore educates only 68
per cent of its population while Canada educates 89
How would Ontario
compare if we removed the poorest and weakest from
our education system? We believe our test scores
would be much higher. A 1997 Statistics Canada study
would support that. Although Ontario students were in
the middle when it came to reading and writing, when
the lowest 15 per cent of students were removed,
Ontario students scores improved tremendously.
The students who placed at the bottom of these tests
were associated with families of lower economic
status, lower parental educational attainment and
participation in school activities, and less support
for learning at home. Removing these students from
the system would surely improve Ontarios
ranking. Should these students be further
disadvantaged by excluding them from higher education
as would happen in Singapore?
Higher with Fewer Students
Futurist John Kettle
appears to agree that rankings change when you
decrease the number of students who are tested. He
reported in a Globe and
Mail article (Our
Schools/Our Selves, 1997) that the average academic
student performance decreases when you include a
larger number of students in the sample. Kettle says
that when only five per cent of college-age students
attend college, marks tend to be high. But when 50
per cent of that same age group are at university or
college, the academic averages are lower. The latter
example, Kettle believes, is a sign that education is
being successfully democratized. The former example
is the triumph of elitism.
The practice of
streaming and excluding individuals happens in some
countries, as can be seen in the third column. The UN
Human Development Report defines secondary education
as education at the second level. It is based on at
least four years of previous instruction at the first
level and includes middle schools, secondary schools,
high schools, teacher training schools, vocational
and technical schools.
Korea, and Japan show even fewer students entering
what we in Canada call senior levels of high school.
How representative of Singapores population
were their test scores and on what basis should we
compare Canada to Singapore? It seems that if Canada
is to be properly compared to Singapore, only the top
68 per cent of Canadian students should be included.
Access to post-secondary
education is also limited to students in many of
these countries. Tertiary education is defined as
education at the third level. As a minimum condition
of admission, it requires the completion of education
at the second level or evidence of an equivalent
level of knowledge. It includes universities, teacher
colleges and higher professional schools.
A greater percentage of
students in Canada proceed to post-secondary
education. In Singapore only eight per cent of
individuals who complete secondary school actually go
on to post-secondary education.
The same can be said
about the percentage of tertiary graduates. As the
chart indicates, Canada exceeds most countries and
produces more graduates with professional degrees.
Thus we can conclude,
not that Canada is doing poorly, but that Canada is
competing quite well, considering the numbers we
educate. Canada is a very educated country.
What else can we
conclude from the examination? A cursory analysis of
TIMSS scores suggests that although countries such as
Singapore, Bulgaria and Korea educate their citizens
very well, they educate a significantly smaller
percentage of their population. Canada ranks at the
top when it comes to the percentage of its citizens
who complete primary, secondary and tertiary
Canada scores in the top
13 countries on TIMSS. Singapores TIMSS score
should be high because they educate only a small
group. Another possible conclusion is that only an
elite segment of the population participates in
international academic competitions. It can also be
concluded that in Canada, overall test scores are
lower because a greater segment of society is
included in the testing. Certain school-aged
individuals obviously have been excluded in samples
from Singapore, whereas the success of the Canadian
education system means all students are included.
We can refute the
alarmists who claim that Ontario trails the pack when
it comes to science education. Ontario is at the head
of the pack when it comes to education science
Joe Calabrese and Nick Forte both teach
science at John Paul II Secondary School in London.
They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org