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Canadian Exceptionalism? Not in Education

Beneath a veil of “success” lies fundamental cracks in Canada’s K–12 education system

A mere 47 per cent of Grade 6 students met the Ontario provincial standard in mathematics in the 2021–2022 school year. That’s just one of many disturbing findings displayed in the province’s latest report on education, which was conducted by the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) and released in October 2022. Just as startling, however, is just how little is being done about it.

Perhaps the reason why Canada lacks urgency in combating its education crisis is due to the Canadian media. Indeed, for years, media sources across the country and the world have been spinning an opposite narrative: that the state of Canadian K–12 education somehow deserves applause. As recently as 2016, for example, the CBC published an article calling 15-year-old Canadians “among the best global performers in science, math,” and such sentiment has subsequently been echoed by advocacy groups across the country. Fix My Schools, a parent-led non-partisan advocacy group, even went as far as calling Ontario’s public education system “one of the best in the world.” The result? The birth of an international narrative that Canada is some sort of an education superpower. In reality, not only is such a narrative a complete illusion, but it is also a disservice, as millions of Canadians are being falsely led to believe the country is successfully producing the leaders of tomorrow. 

Across the board, evidence shows that students are struggling at key educational skills, often deemed fundamental, beginning as early as Grade 3. There, the report found that just 73 per cent of Ontario students met the provincial standard in reading, while only 65 per cent of Grade 3 students met the provincial standard in writing, and a mere 59 per cent of students met the provincial standard in mathematics. Unfortunately, these results are not limited to Ontario: data collected from 100 primary and 40 secondary schools in Quebec show that 20 per cent of students are failing French, with an additional 25 per cent of students failing math.

These are serious concerns that shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially when one considers the impact of education on students. Studies show clearly that K–12 mathematical ability not only has a direct impact on brain development but that it often dictates future achievement. Similar studies insist that the same can be said for writing and general literacy ability. But what makes education unique – at least when compared to most problems – is that we cannot just throw money at the problem and hope it corrects itself. Simply put, gaps in education tend to compound. By all accounts, “even at high-performing, wealthy high schools, students who have fallen far behind academically in 4th and 8th grade have less than a 1 in 3 chance of being ready for college or a career by the end of high school.” This means that for many of the students outlined above, it might already be too late: the gaps in knowledge might be insurmountable.  

So what should be done? Many advocacy groups believe that Canada should simply spend more money to better fund its schools. Yet further investigation reveals that this is clearly not the case, as Canada ranks in the top quartile of expenditure on its schools. Rather, any solution should revolve around three key steps. 

For one, Canada needs greater transparency in its reporting on K–12 student achievement. As it currently stands, when reporting on improvements in student achievement, the country continues to group together students who use assistive technology (AT) on standardized tests with those who do not. While the rise of AT is positive for learning, its relatively recent adaptation means that samples of student test scores taken in 2005 (before AT) and 2019 are not only different but also incomparable. By ignoring this fact and persisting to group the two types of students together, the Canadian government is not only breaking a fundamental rule of statistics, but it is (perhaps unintentionally) inflating student achievement. For example, from 2005 to 2019, the number of “up to standard” Grade 3 reading scores improved from 59 per cent to 74 per cent. At least that’s what Canadians were told. In reality, only when adjusting for a similar sample is the true improvement seen: students only improved to 62 per cent proficiency. Even the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Ontario was “surprised to learn the extent of the use of Assistive Technology/Scribing is not reported in the annual EQAO Provincial Reports.” 

Canada must simultaneously double down on traditional student testing, like timed closed-book examinations. In recent years, provinces have moved away from traditional testing such as exams. While there are noted flaws in timed examinations, evidence clearly shows that continuous testing is often still the most accurate evaluator of student achievement: they inform a teacher where a class or individual is struggling, allowing them to tailor lessons and respond to student weaknesses. There is no reason why traditional and new styles of testing should be treated as mutually exclusive, and yet they often are. Canada should embrace more personalized assessments while also increasing the emphasis it places on timed closed-book examinations. Only then will students be properly equipped to tackle university-style assessment, which is mostly a combination of the two styles of assessment.

Finally, the country should look to follow the UK’s lead and introduce mandatory Grade 11 and 12 math courses. Promoting more math is not going to be a popular opinion, as just 53 per cent of Grade 9 students indicate that they like math. However, just because something is unpopular does not make it wrong. On math, too many students fixate on the concepts, deeming them useless, while failing to recognize that simply practicing problem-solving develops strong logical reasoning and analytical skills that they will use for life. All Canadians should want strong critical thinking skills, and mandating mathematics through Grade 12 would be a step toward making this a reality.

As it currently stands, education in Canada is at a critical point. While Canadian high schoolers still score well on standardized tests, the country is experiencing eroding levels of underlying student achievement as elementary school students continue to struggle. This means that while there is still time to change, the window is closing. Getting a proper education remains one of the greatest privileges anyone can receive, as its benefits are truly immeasurable. It should be Canadians’ number one priority to ensure we remain leaders in this field.