December 1997

Science Rankings
Science Rankings


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Take Another Look
at Our Students’ Science Ranking

A critical look at the international test scores shows that, contrary to what today’s 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 rankings.

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 science.

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.

Look 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 Canada’s 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 science.

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 population?

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 per cent.

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 Ontario’s ranking. Should these students be further disadvantaged by excluding them from higher education as would happen in Singapore?

Marks 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.

Singapore, Bulgaria, Korea, and Japan show even fewer students entering what we in Canada call senior levels of high school. How representative of Singapore’s 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 education.

Canada scores in the top 13 countries on TIMSS. Singapore’s 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 or otherwise.

Joe Calabrese and Nick Forte both teach science at John Paul II Secondary School in London. They can be reached at or