Nova Scotia behind most of country

By Charles Cirtwill

Are we really “high flyers”?

In the face of the one-two punch of atrocious high school math exam results and declining math performance in elementary grades, the province of Nova Scotia has, once again, trotted out the usual defence. We live in Canada, our standards are high and the evidence of that is how well we do on international assessments. The implication, of course, is that a 60 here (or a 50) is as good as an 80 (or a 90) in most other countries.

Well, that could be true, but the evidence does not support it. First off, let’s be clear, Nova Scotia does NOT do exceptionally well on international assessments. Canada scores well, but Canada scores well because Alberta, and to a lesser degree B.C., Ontario and Quebec, carry the rest of us along on their backs, kicking and screaming.

On the international assessments known as PISA, the Program of International Student Assessment, Nova Scotia (and the rest of Atlantic Canada) has, again, consistently trailed the rest of Canada by up to a full year’s worth of educational performance.

How can I be so sure? Well, PISA results are reported using a scale where the average of all OECD countries is 500 points with a standard deviation of plus or minus 100. In 2003, as just one example, Alberta scored 549 on this scale, Nova Scotia scored 515. The variances on the scores are examined carefully around the world (the research is readily available on the web) and analysis for 2003 PISA math results suggests that a difference of 36 points from country to country represents about a one-year difference in schooling. Analysis for Canada in 2003 suggested a difference of 53 points between provinces actually represented a year of schooling. This may well back up the assertion that Canadian standards are higher and relatively more consistent, but it also raises serious questions about where Nova Scotia stands, high standards or not.

Looking at just the Canadian results for the 2003 PISA math assessment, the difference between the top (Alberta) and bottom (Prince Edward Island) scores is 49 points, roughly a full year of schooling. Four other provinces (Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) were between 32 and 37 points behind Alberta, meaning those provinces’ 15-year-olds were basically more than a half year of schooling behind the top province in the country.

That is not, of course, how the province of Nova Scotia sees it. Indeed, a few years ago they went so far as to announce that Nova Scotia was 9th in the world on the most recent assessments. The problem being that, in order to get that ranking they had to pretend the other provinces did not exist, and they had to ignore any other sub-national entities for which scores were available. So — let’s leave out those pesky people from Alberta and those obnoxious know-it-alls from B.C.,for instance.

A few years later, they at least conceded that other Canadian provinces might possibly exist and claimed only 18th place on the world stage. Again, conveniently leaving out any snooty high-performing provinces, states, cantons or other sub-national entities from other places — why clutter up the scorecard with people who did better than you?

If we compare apples to apples — states, provinces, cantons and other sub-national regions for which data are readily available; Nova Scotia, and our Atlantic neighbours, are firmly entrenched in the middle of the international pack. If that is how the province defines flying high, then it is no wonder that our kids continue to soar so low.

Charles Cirtwill is president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent economic and social policy think tank based in Atlantic Canada.