This past week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, (OECD) released the results of its much-lauded Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. These tests are given across 72 countries every three years to measure 15-year-old students’ proficiency in certain subject areas, including Math, reading and Science. In 2015 it was Science that was being tested, and last year, students from across the planet sat down to write what has become the world’s most famous test.
And, apparently, when it comes to understanding Science, Nova Scotia students are some of the best in the world.
When it came to an overall ranking, Nova Scotia students ranked in 15th place, internationally. That’s right, our little province, essentially, beat out 57 other countries in the rankings. If you only include OECD member countries, which the organization often does to make comparison, Nova Scotia was outscored by only three. Removing the other Canadian provinces from the mix, the ranking goes Japan, Estonia, Finland, Nova Scotia.
Countries that did not fare as well as our students on the internationally recognized assessment included Korea, Australia, the United Kingdom, and, not uncommonly, the United States.
Now, even within Canada, which outscored most other nations and featured powerful showings by education juggernauts Alberta (2nd in the world), British Columbia (3rd), and Quebec (5th), Nova Scotia placed 5th nationally, a mere 7 points behind Ontario, and led all of the smaller provinces including (in order of appearance) PEI, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Finally, the test questions are assigned a difficulty level from 1 – 6. Level 1 are the easiest, and according to the OECD, 99.9% of the students who took the test in 2015 could do this level of question successfully. Level 5 and 6 are the hardest, and are rather viewed as the gold standard of achievement. Only 8% of OECD students in the rest of the world could solve these questions while a full 10% of Nova Scotia students could do so.
Please note the phrase “in the rest of the world“.
So, 5th in the country, 15th in the world, and 10% of our students were among the best science students on the planet.
And last week, I did not see one single headline. Not one news story. Not one statement from our Minister of Education.
Now, I have not always been kind to the media in this province, and in their defence, good news is no news, so to speak. However, this deafening silence stands out in rather stark contrast to the last time the PISA results were announced. In 2012, another PISA test, focussing on Math, was written, and when the results were released in 2013, it was shown that Nova Scotia students had slipped in the rankings, dropping from an average score of 512 in 2009 to a score of 497 in 2012. Even though results from 2003 – 2012 showed that we had only dropped, on average, 7 points over that time frame, (we saw a 6 point increase between 2006 and 2009) the focus of educational discourse took on a rather alarmist tone.
At that time, the Minister of Education, Karen Casey, was called to answer for these results by a number of media outlets, and she spoke quite clearly on the subject. “I’m not pleased that the scores are going down”, she told a local newspaper on December 3rd, 2013, “I think whenever you have an assessment, the value of that assessment is what you do about it”. She went on to say “We recognize that the skill set that our students have when they leave grade 12 may not be…to everybody’s satisfaction.”
She was not alone in her concern. In fact, an editorial in the same paper concluded a rather scathing review of the topic by agreeing with her:
“Education Minister Karen Casey is right to say these math results are a concern… Her department should set a goal of moving up the global ranks… It should engage the public and teachers… PISA is not an education public relations problem. If we’re wise, it’s a tool we’ll use to shoot for the top.”
Thus it was, that soon after, the Liberals launched their much touted review of Nova Scotia’s Education system. This review would see a panel appointed, a survey distributed, a report presented, and a governmental plan created, all to attend to the perception that Nova Scotian students were falling behind their peers, both nationally and internationally.
All over a 7 point drop.
Even when the results of another large-scale assessment, released in 2014, showed that Nova Scotia students were actually doing quite well, this dialogue that schools were failing continued to drive the educational bus. During the introduction of her government’s 2015 “Education Action Plan”, the Minister of Education herself expressed opinions like “Time and again, test results show our students are falling behind…” and “It is an unfortunate, accepted truth that we have fallen behind in educating our children…and they have fallen behind their peers…On national and international tests…”
Did I mention 15th in the world?
Now, I am no fan of standardized testing. I have also stated on more than one occasion that we should never jump to conclusions based on their results, fearing, of course, that doing so will lead governments to institute inappropriate policy responses. (See Nova Scotia 2012-2016) However, in my mind, the PISA 2015 results provide a rather nice lens through which to examine at least one of the causes of current the unrest in our system.
The teachers of Nova Scotia are locked in what has become a bitter labour dispute with the Liberal government, and for many, the right to true collective bargaining is at the heart of the issue. On one side, the McNeil Liberals have stated that they wish to impose a wage package on all public servants, and that they will not even discuss moving from that position. On the other side, the teachers have held pretty true to the idea that “bargaining” means discussion, not dictation. If McNeil wants his zeros and to remove the long-standing service award, then he needs to win those concessions at the table.
However, beyond that fairly simplistic summation, this labour dispute really has its roots in the classroom. The myriad of complexities facing today’s educator have been brought resoundingly to the forefront of this dispute. Yet in the face of all that is wrong within the system, Nova Scotia’s teachers have managed to produce world-class results, while experiencing some of the most challenging working conditions the profession has ever seen.
I don’t believe that results like this deserve a ticker tape parade, any more than I believe that not doing well should result in a knee jerk overhaul of the system. However, I do think that if the system is to be widely criticized for marginally poor results, it should at least get a nod for producing markedly good ones.
At the end of the day, the teachers of this province, it seems, are doing a pretty good job educating its young people, despite the constant message from their boss that they are not.
One would think that such a showing would garner enough respect to warrant genuine collective bargaining, in the very least.