International studies say Canada’s high-school students are tops—so why do so many struggle in university?
John Bilewicz, a recent Wilfrid Laurier University grad, had a 92 per cent average when he graduated from high school in 2003. He nevertheless struggled in his first year at university, particularly in calculus. “It was pretty bad. There was a huge failure rate in that class,” says the 22-year-old from Collingwood, Ont. Bilewicz didn’t achieve the overall 70 per cent grade he needed to continue in Laurier’s bachelor of business administration program. Many students in Bilewicz’s situation drop out; he managed to switch to the general arts program. (Laurier has since retooled the calculus course and added tutorial sessions.)
Bilewicz’s story—serious post-secondary challenges coming on the heels of excellent high-school grades—is a national phenomenon. With her university admitting so many students lacking basic math skills, Memorial’s Mantyka created what is probably the country’s most comprehensive remedial math program. Before they can take a math course at her university, students must pass a placement test. The one-quarter to one-half scoring at or below a Grade 6 level are put into the Foundation Math Program: three non-credit courses over three semesters. “If you don’t have any skills to actually do arithmetic or do any kind of symbolic manipulation,” says Mantyka, “and if all you can do is begin to punch numbers in a calculator, then your ability to solve problems in any kind of meaningful way is vacuous.”
Other universities are similarly working to find their weak students and help them—and not just in math. The University of Ottawa has hired statisticians to track first-year-student test scores, early in the first term. If a student is deemed at risk, a faculty adviser calls and encourages them to take advantage of tutoring services offered at several sites around campus.
Others have responded differently. As of September, students can gain admittance to Alberta’s faculty of arts with either a Grade 12 math or science—they are no longer required to have both. Meanwhile, in British Columbia, the province still requires high-school students to write an English Grade 12 exit exam, but exams in other subjects are now optional.
So where does this leave Canada’s vaunted international performance? Why the apparent discrepancy between high-school and university performance?
For starters, a closer look at PISA shows that while Canada’s test results put its 15-year-olds among the world’s best, the Canadian lead over the rest of the world is in some cases not large. For example, in mathematics, Canadian students ranked seventh overall on the PISA, yet the distance between Canada and the next seven countries is so small that the difference may not be statistically significant. Canada’s seventh place may not be any better than Belgium’s 12th-place finish; still not bad but somewhat less impressive.