Are 1 in 6 Canadians illiterate or 10th best readers in the world?

During the last year, we have been given conflicting information about how well Canadians can read. First to be released, in May of 2010, was a Statistics Canada report that claimed 1 in 6 Canadians were functionally illiterate or 14.6% of the 42% who were considered semi-illiterate.  For specific information on those statistics, read this CBC story. It is titled “Canada’s Shame” and is clearly an attempt to justify increasing funding and programs for adults with literacy difficulties.

Now, I am all for helping people who need it. I operated my own private reading clinic for a decade or more to do just that.  But, something is wrong when StatsCan has to use twelve-year-old numbers to make their case. Here, for example, is how the joint StatsCan, IALS (OECD’s International Adult Literacy Survey) study is explained — that the first round of IALS surveys were conducted in 1995, followed by second and third rounds in 1996 and 1998, with the final report pertaining to 23 countries or regions being released in 2000.

So, given how out of date that data was, why was it released in 2010? And, why was it discussed in the absence of other studies — particularly since both studies involved the OECD and data pertaining to the the studies on the reading competency of fifteen-year-olds was already available for 2000, 2003 and 2006? And, just last week, the 2009 OECD’s school-based international test scores in reading were released (December, 2010). Involving 70 countries, that report found that Canadian youth ranked tenth overall for reading, having slipped from 7th overall three years ago in 2006.

Now, here is the Canadian dilemma: Given the latest OECD school-based reading tests and the explanation in the CBC column, how can we have 42% of our population semi-illiterate while our high school graduates are performing well above the norm. I mean, we can’t have it both ways. We can’t be drowning in illiteracy while our kids are excelling.

So, which is it?

OECD tests indicate Canada is slipping in academic subjects

As Shannon Proudfoot reported yesterday in the National Post, in just three years, Canada has lost ground on the OECD’s (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) international Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test scores in reading, mathematics and science — going from 7th place in 2006 to 10th place in 2009. Yet, given the latest spin coming out of the Ontario government (which I received via e-mail), you’d never guess that, as a country, we had actually lost ground.

So, I decided to see if the Ontario government had a reason to brag. Well, it seems they (we) do. For example, this Globe and Mail graph on reading scores, shows that the Province of Alberta led the country in 2000, followed by B.C., Quebec and Ontario in fourth place.  However, in 2009, those rankings have changed somewhat with Alberta and Ontario neck and neck for first place, followed by B.C. and Quebec in second and third place as before.

That said, Canada’s overall rankings have still slipped, a fact that would suggest one of two possibilities. Either we are losing ground because our fifteen-year old students are not doing as well or fifteen-year-old students in other countries are doing better. Given some of the reportage on this Google search page, it would seem that the reasons are a little bit of both, particularly given the fact that some provincial results in reading are dragging down Canada’s overall ranking. Here also is what Moira MacDonald of the Toronto Sun writes on this topic.

In any event,  since the rankings are obviously available from many media sources, I decided to write this post for another reason and that was to look at the implicit left-right split in the results and the objective versus subjective nature for some findings.

For example, in terms of left-right, check out this country-by-country chart from the OECD website. What you will immediately notice is that the top five are Asian countries, including Shanghai-China, Singapore and South Korea.

What is interesting is that those countries are homogeneous societies and reflect the traditional values of the “right” — even if they are officially communist — such as valuing hard work and the importance of education. However, in other countries that are solidly multicultural, like Canada for instance, it is interesting to note that Proudfoot included Canada’s ranking in terms of equity policies — usually perceived as “left” wing policies.

In other words, for Canadians, it is not enough for us to simply be good at reading, mathematics and science. We also have to be good regardless of the socio-economic status of a student’s family — something that is likely more of an accomplishment than the overall scores themselves. For example, as Proudfoot wrote:

“Across OECD member countries, an average of 14% of student achievement can be attributed to socioeconomic status, but in Canada that variation is just 8.6% based on reading scores, putting Canada in fourth place.” [My highlighting.]

However, while these philosophical issues and inter-provincial comparisons are interesting, they shouldn’t cloud the reality that, as a whole country, students near high school graduation are not scoring as high as they once did. Meaning, those provincial and territorial jurisdictions pulling Canada’s overall scores down had better look into why their school systems are not doing as well as they could, particularly in terms of reading skills.

Update December 13th, 2010:

Check out Paul Bennett’s blog “EduChatter.” He has an excellent analysis of these OECD test results.