Low PISA Math Scores Post-Pandemic: Policies Need To Consider Both Academic Excellence And Equity


Author: Louis Volante

(MENAFN- The Conversation) The global results capture mathematics skills based on 2022 testing. PISA typically tests math (as well as science and literacy skills) every three years, but a 2021 test was postponed because of the pandemic.

Governments anticipated there would be a drop in test scores due to COVID-19 disruption . But few would have predicted such significant learning losses.

Canada was not immune from the learning challenges caused by the pandemic. Canada's results indicate a significant drop of 15 score points in mathematics - a score of 497, down from 512 in 2018 . Since PISA was first administered in 2000, Canada has never experienced a drop of 15 score points in any area as has happened this year.

As provinces across Canada take stock of test scores, and likely face weaponization of these scores by those seeking to gain political points , both policymakers and the public need to know there's no quick fix. To address academic learning, a multi-dimensional approach is needed that promotes the success of the whole child: academic, physical and socio-emotional.

Read more: Student achievement depends on reducing poverty now and after COVID-19

Significant drop in mathematics scores

Canada's math scores on the last three administrations of PISA have been fairly stable, albeit showing a slight downward performance trend .

Still, Canadian students have consistently performed above the OECD average as the top English speaking jurisdiction in mathematics, science and reading achievement . While Canada is still a top-performing nation and these drops closely align with average OECD performance declines , they are sure to provoke calls for system reform, given the trajectory of the decline.

What should governments do (and not do) to address significant performance declines?


Making up two years of lost learning is a daunting challenge. (Shutterstock) Education policies and academic learning loss

My research with colleagues suggests educational policymakers in Canadian provinces have taken a number of important steps to address challenges created by the pandemic.

No less than 62 policy documents and related supports were developed and issued across Canada's 10 provinces from January 2020 to December 2021. Academic supports tended to focus on maintaining continuity of learning, synchronous learning during school closures and, finally, recovery catch-up strategies.

Catch-up policies need to consider students' mental and physical health - domains largely untested by large-scale assessment programs, but equally important.

Read more: Pause PISA international standardized student testing - it's been two years of pandemic schooling stress

Resist temptation to narrow curriculum

Similarly, provincial policymakers must resist the temptation to narrow the curriculum to focus on the mathematics domain at the expense of other subjects. Narrowing the curriculum often accompanies significant test score drops, which unfortunately contribute to school failure and negatively impact countries' future economic prosperity.

Clearly, a generational challenge like COVID-19 requires a multi-year approach that takes a long-view based on the best available evidence. And yet, PISA results have routinely been politicized by policymakers globally, including in Canada.

Yes, it is early days, but if the past is a good predictor, a host of education reforms such as greater privatization and school choice will likely be offered as a remedy for our“failing schools.”

Collectively, these types of reforms, modelled on notions that the state should promote markets and competition to meet social needs, have consistently shown their negative effects around the world.

Read more: 'School choice' policies are associated with increased separation of students by social class

Moving forward in a post-COVID world

Education is a social science concerned with human behaviour in its social and cultural aspects . What works in one context isn't guaranteed to work in another. Looking to countries that perform high in PISA math performance like Singapore (and other Asian nations) to borrow policies and strategies in the hopes of emulating their success, is naïve.

Success in a post-COVID world will depend on local innovation and an ability to address the unique challenges of Canada's ethnically and linguistically diverse population . Indeed, the share of immigrant students in Canada increased to 34 per cent in 2022 .

Although Canada can and should consider the efficacy of education policies in similar international education contexts, it also possesses unique educational governance structures. Provincial autonomy in administering education means provinces can learn from each other as much as from other countries.

In many instances, performance variations are larger across Canadian provinces , than between Canada and other high-performing nations.

For example, the difference between Saskachewan and Québec's PISA math scores is 46 points, approximately one-and-a-half grade levels, with the former at the lower and the latter at the higher end . A range of education policy and other factors, including the availability of early childhood education , have been and should continue to be explored to account for such differences.

Read more: 'Generation C': Why investing in early childhood is critical after COVID-19


Early childhood education is among factors that can influence later academic outcomes. Former Nova Scotia Immigration Minister Lena Diab, right, now a federal member of Parliament, with child-care worker Anna-Kay Clarke, with children at a daycare in Halifax in 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan Push for online learning

It would also be naive to expect technology to offer easy solutions to enhancing students' access to quality education.

For example, in Ontario, a shift to online learning and less in-class hours, undoubtedly contributed to pandemic learning losses . Yet online learning is now being offered as a strategy to improve education - as it was also prior to the pandemic.

This is despite the fact that students and parents have both voiced their concerns with online education.

Equally important is that research highlights the social challenges associated with a reliance on online education.

Two pillars of success: excellence and equity

Ultimately, Canadian policymakers should be judged on their ability to promote academic resilience in a post-COVID world that is both multi-dimensional and also attentive to marginalized student groups, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds .

Policies designed to promote high achievement must also carefully consider the success of students living in poverty. The best-performing education systems embody both of these characteristics, and PISA scores represent only one piece of a complex puzzle to help spur system reform.

The countries that equally attend to these two pillars, excellence and equity, will be the leaders of the future.


The Conversation

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