International studies say Canada’s high-school students are tops—so why do so many struggle in university?
Are you smarter than a 10th grader? Try this math problem: Nick wants to pave the rectangular patio of his new house. The patio is 5.25 metres long and three metres wide. He needs 81 bricks per square metre. How many bricks does Nick need for the whole patio?
The preceding is a sample question from the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, a two-hour test that measured the math, science and literacy levels of 15-year-olds. More than 400,000 students from 57 countries took part, and Canadian kids were once again among the best in the world, finishing third in science (behind Finland and Hong Kong), fourth in reading (behind Korea, Finland and Hong Kong), and seventh in mathematics.
Want to know how Canadian students measure up? Check out the charts in our 18th Annual Rankings issue, on newsstands now!
Canada’s impressive PISA results are not an aberration: when international studies of teenage and elementary student achievement are conducted, Canadian students and the Canadian education system shine. Over the past decade, Canadian elementary- and secondary-school students have repeatedly ranked among the world’s best in mathematics, science, reading and writing.
But while international tests say that our kids and our high schools are tops, there’s compelling evidence from universities and colleges that paints a very different picture. “[High-school] students have done math programs that are supposed to have prepared them for post-secondary,” says Memorial University mathematics and statistics professor Sherry Mantyka, “and they’re desperately not prepared.” Before students at Memorial can take a math credit course, they must take a math placement test; each year, 25 per cent to 50 per cent score at a Grade 6 level or lower. A study of more than 10,000 students who entered college in 2006 in the Toronto area showed that 35 per cent earned a D or an F in first-term college math.
And it’s not just math: at the University of Ottawa, to catch the large number of students falling behind and falling through the cracks, the administration in the last few years has felt it necessary to expand its student help centres and hire hundreds of student tutors. The University of Waterloo has first-year students write a five-paragraph essay, which is graded on grammar, punctuation and structure. Each year, roughly one-quarter fail. Waterloo is a university where admission is highly competitive, and generally awarded to only well-above-average high-school grads.
What’s going on? Are Canadian high-school students among the best prepared on earth—or are many shockingly unprepared for higher education? The answer is yes. And yes.