Low math scores are an unsolved problem

If you’re like us, when you studied math in school, you were constantly thinking ‘wow, this is hard.’ Unfortunately, for kids today, it seems that learning math has gotten even harder.  

Driving the news: Canadian math scores continued a long fall from grace, per the latest results from the OECD’s standardized math test. Between 2003 and 2022, overall scores declined by 35 points, with only 12% of students categorized as “high math achievers.”

  • Last year, 22% of students scored below the level of math literacy the OECD finds adequate to fully participate in modern society—in 2003, that number was just 10%.

Why it matters: Poorer math comprehension puts today’s students at risk of falling behind, not just academically but economically—one study found that a one-point increase in high school GPA increases average annual earnings in adulthood by between 12% and 14%. 

  • Math is also key to understanding today’s world. An OECD director told The Globe and Mail that math is needed to follow topics like climate change or the pandemic.

Why it’s happening: The disruption caused by the pandemic didn’t help scores, but the long decline signals flaws in how math is taught in schools—a contentious issue with debates focused on grasping basic concepts versus the inquiry model, focused on problem-solving. 

  • Ontario is ground zero for this struggle, with the province choosing to drop inquiry math back in 2020. 

Big picture: We need more math-savvy workers. Mathematicians play a key role in fighting global challenges like poverty, extreme weather, and diseases, according to UNESCO.

Zoom out: Compared to the rest of the OECD, Canada’s doing fine. Only eight of the other 80 jurisdictions assessed outperformed Canada on math. That said, scores have declined everywhere since 2003, so this is less of an A+ for us and more of a D- for humanity.—QH