Paul W. Bennett: World-class no more: This global reading test highlights the damage of Ontario’s school closures

Among Western nations, Canada lost the most school days to COVID-19 school closures
A student peers through the front door of Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto on Friday December 4, 2020. Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press.

 Canada’s reputed “world-class” school system has recently suffered another indignity. When the global results of the 2021 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessment were released in May 2023, Canada was nowhere to be found on the rankings and Ontario registered an “incomplete.” That matters because it is the most widely recognized assessment of international literacy standards comparing the reading ability of nine and 10-year-olds in 57 states, covering 43 different countries.

As one of Canada’s two PIRLS pioneers, along with Quebec, Ontario has participated since the first cycle back in 2001. Finishing among the top performers was once a badge of pride for the Ontario Ministry of Education. In November 2007, the official Ontario news release, entitled “Ontario Students Are World Class,” heralded the PIRLS 2007 student results as proof of that claim. Bowing out of PIRLS 2021 ranks as quite a come-down for Ontario. 

Administering the PIRLS assessment during the COVID pandemic in 2020-21 proved to be challenging for governments, students, and teachers, but most countries persevered to complete the test of reading competence.  

Grade 4-5 students in countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Russia continued to top the rankings in reading, while England took fourth place, leapfrogging Finland, Poland, and many other countries. Six Canadian provinces were scheduled to participate, but two—Ontario and New Brunswick—dropped out, unable to perform, largely because of lengthy school shutdowns.   

Some Canadian provinces did manage to administer the PIRLS 2021 assessment and were benchmarked, and most of the scores reflected declines in reading competency. Among Anglophone provinces, Alberta’s fourth graders fared the best, but scores dipped from 560 in 2006 to 548 in 2011, and further down to 539 in 2021. In British Columbia, the decline was steeper—from 558 in 2006 to 535 in 2021.

 Quebec was, once again, an exception, with reading scores rising from 533 in 2006 to 547 in 2016 and 551 in 2021. The Quebec score comes with an asterisk because students wrote their test at the beginning of the fifth grade because of pandemic disruptions. 

Student scores fell compared to PIRLS 2016 in most countries, except for Singapore (up from 576 to 587) and Hong Kong (569 to 573), while England shot up the rankings by holding its own, dropping marginally from 559 to 558. Finland’s score went down from 566 in 2016 to 549, while Poland’s dropped from 565 to 549, still well above the international average of 520 and the European average of 524.

England’s fourth place ranking was front page news and produced its share of crowing in the United Kingdom. The UK schools minister, Nick Gibb, attributed England’s success to the introduction of the phonics screening check in 2012 and the establishment in 2018 of the English hubs programme, a scheme designed to develop expertise in teaching reading in schools. Indeed, reading scores in England have been on an upswing since PIRLS 2006 and that country has shot past Canada on the global rankings. 

The big question: Why did Ontario score an incomplete on the most recent global reading assessment? The PIRLS 2021 “Country Report” for Ontario, Canada, is very convoluted and full of rationalizations but quite revealing.

Ontario was scheduled to participate in the spring of 2021 but the PIRLS administration was impossible because “three modes of delivery” were in place in 2020-21 and schools were closed for much of the year. Unplanned local classroom and school closures scuttled the second attempt in April 2021. A third effort, from October 18 to November 26, 2021, was stymied by “high rates of staff absenteeism and a shortage of certified teachers.” Thus ended Ontario’s full participation and once stellar reputation burnished by PIRLS rankings. 

The latest PIRLS assessment proved to be a litmus test of how well school systems fared in weathering the COVID pandemic. The vast majority of students and most countries were adversely affected by school shutdowns, nowhere more evident than in Ontario. Ontario and New Brunswick were both unable to perform on PIRLS 21 and school closures factor into the explanation.  

Missing that much school was perhaps the most critical of all factors and that’s recently been borne out in a May 2023 World Bank research study, produced by Harry Patrinos. Among the world’s Western nations, Canada lost the most school days to COVID-19 school closures. In a table of lost school days, Canada’s mean number was 26, with Ontario leading the way. 

It all boils down to a simple conclusion. “The longer the duration of closures,” Patrinos shows, armed with the data, “the greater the losses.” For jurisdictions, like Canada (and particularly Ontario), with reasonably reliable data, school closures of 21 weeks produced average learning losses of 0.23 standard deviation, almost a whole year’s worth of learning. 

Closing schools so much during the COVID pandemic has aggravated learning losses and damaged our international reputation. Most Canadian provinces dropped in their mean scores on reading and Ontario failed to report, and we have plenty of evidence of the impact. 

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