Some 23 per cent of university graduates born in Canada have such limited math skills they score no more than 2 on a scale of 0 to 5 — and 16 per cent are just as poor at literacy, according to a new report from Statistics Canada.
Among the worst performers are graduates of teaching programs, of whom 29 per cent scored low on numeracy — a field where teachers’ abilities have drawn concern — followed by arts and humanities majors, said the report, released Tuesday. Science and math students did much better. The results came from an international survey of skills by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development called the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies.
The survey tested the ability of adults aged 25 to 65, with different levels of education, to understand and work with texts of different length and levels of difficulty, and to use math “to manage the demands of a range of situations in everyday life” — both skills many jobs require.
Individuals at level 2 or below in numeracy are described as less likely to be able to perform and understand complex mathematical information and use problem-solving strategies. With literacy, individuals at level 2 or below are likely to be able to undertake only tasks of limited complexity such as locating single pieces of information in short sections of text.
When foreign-born Canadian university graduates are included, the number with low numeracy rose to 35 per cent, and low literacy skills to 27 per cent.
“In general we do very well, but we’d encourage post-secondary institutions to take a look at what they’re doing, and maybe integrate more literacy and numeracy and problem-solving into the curriculum,” said Daniel Munro, principal research associate for the Conference Board of Canada, which also released a study Tuesday noting literacy and problem-solving scores should be stronger for a country with such a highly educated population.
“And we should also look back at what’s happening from kindergarten to Grade 12, because many universities say they’re doing the best with the students they get,” said Munro. “Recent OECD studies of 15-year-olds show our students have slipped a bit, and some universities say the ‘raw material’ they get is not as good as it used to be.”
As Canadian universities open their doors wider to be more inclusive, they may be “drawing from a pool of students with lower foundational skills from the kindergarten to Grade 12 level,” added Munro.
Someone with low literacy skills “is less likely to understand or respond appropriately to complex texts,” said Darcy Hango, author of the Stats Canada report, which analyzed responses from 27,000 Canadians. “The questions are real-world situations about coping with daily life and work … and sometimes (those with lower skills) can’t take that extra step to answer more complex questions.”
Yet Ontario employers haven’t complained a lot about graduates’ literacy and numeracy skills,” said Josh Hjartarson, vice-president of policy and government relations for the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which represents 60,000 employers across 160 communities. “However many have concerns about skills gaps, with not enough people who can, say, run mining equipment or enough people in northern Ontario who can run large infrastructure projects.
“But we’re generally regarded as having among the best education systems in the world.”
Among other factors the Stats Can study found;
• The higher the parents’ education, the less likely the graduate to score poorly;
• Canadian-born university graduates with poor skills were less likely to work as professionals or managers;
• Nearly 27 per cent of female university grads born in Canada score poorly on numeracy, compared to about 17 per cent of males;
• The oldest group of university grads — those 60 to 65 years old — scored the worst in skills;
• Ontario university grads born in Canada performed relatively well; only 13 per cent had low scores in literacy (compared to 16 per cent across Canada) and 20 per cent had low scores in numeracy (compared to 23 per cent across Canada);
“All universities in Ontario are concerned about levels of literacy and numeracy as part of our quality assurance framework,” said Donna Woolcott, executive director of Ontario’s Quality Assurance Secretariat, which oversees quality in Ontario’s colleges and universities. “The measurements of graduates’ success go well beyond that. In fact, there are well established minimum standards for undergraduate and graduate programs,” she said, noting universities “rigorously review” their programs at least once every eight years.
Daniel Munro of the Conference Board of Canada said as universities become more inclusive, they may have to offer more remediation and help to students.
“Not to say that Canadian universities are doing badly, but one of the challenges in bringing in more students with a diverse range of learning needs is that universities have had to adapt; university is a different beast these days and maybe a little patience is in order.”
Here is an example of a Level 2 numeracy problem from the test:
“A gas gauge is shown that has three lines or ticks on it: one showing an “F,” one showing an “E” and one in the middle of the others. A line on the gauge, representing the gauge’s needle, shows a level that is roughly halfway between the middle tick and the tick indicating “F,” suggesting that the tank is about three-quarters full. The task states that the tank holds 48 gallons and asks the respondent to determine “how many gallons remain in the tank.” This task is drawn from an everyday context and requires an adult to interpret a display that conveys quantitative information but carries virtually no text or numbers. Adults must first estimate the level of gas remaining in the tank by converting the placement of the needle to a fraction. Then they need to determine how many gallons this represents from the 48-gallon capacity stated in the question. Thus, this task requires adults to apply multiple procedures to arrive at a correct response.”
To sample the test, go to oecd.org/site/piaac/educationandskillsonlineassessment.htm.