One challenge shared by many countries as they work toward improving student performance is insuring that new immigrants are provided the kind and quality of education needed for success. Often, these students, who may speak different languages at school and at home, and who may come from cultures very different from that of their adopted country, are invoked as a reason for low scores on international exams. Some top performers like Finland and the Netherlands have in recent years begun to integrate large immigrant populations into their school systems, and are working to establish effective policies to ensure that these students are able to achieve at the same high levels as native-born students. Other top performers, however, have a long history of educating immigrant students to high levels. Australia, New Zealand and Canada fit into this category. All three countries have student bodies in which nearly a quarter of students are immigrants, defined by the OECD as either first- or second-generation transplants (Figure 1). And notwithstanding the high proportion of immigrant students in these countries, they consistently top the international league tables of student performance. In some cases, notably in Australia, immigrant students in fact do better than native students on international assessments, and in Canada, there is only a small gap between immigrant and native students’ performance (Figure 2). Furthermore, because Canada instituted a longitudinal study of students who first took the PISA exam at age 15 in 2000, we are able to see that immigrant students’ performance in that country has improved over time.
In their annual report, Education at a Glance, the OECD takes immigrant students’ socioeconomic background into account when assessing the gaps between immigrant students and native-born students in order to determine to what degree socioeconomic status may impact performance. They found that when controlling for socioeconomic status, the gap between native and immigrant students decreased in almost every case. On average across OECD countries, the performance gap in reading decreased from 44 points to 27 points. In the United States, while native students outperform immigrants by more than 20 points before accounting for socioeconomic status, immigrant students actually outperform native students by about 10 points once their socioeconomic background is accounted for. Other countries, particularly Canada, Australia and New Zealand, do not have a large gap in the performance of immigrant students before and after taking into account their socioeconomic status, suggesting that they are more successful than other countries including the United States in integrating the vast majority of their immigrant students into their education systems.
The successful integration of immigrants into a country’s school system can be seen clearly in the case of Canada, which has been able to produce high achievement among its immigrant students, as demonstrated by a very close relationship between immigrant students’ average PISA scores and the national average (Figure 3). Australia and New Zealand have also achieved some measure of success here, while Finland and the Netherlands have large gaps between the national average and the average of their immigrant students. In the report Pathways to Success: How Knowledge and Skills at Age 15 Shape Future Lives in Canada, OECD observes that new immigrants tend to perform less well than their Canadian counterparts. However, immigrants who have been in Canada for five or more years nearly match native students’ performance. They also note that more immigrant students go on to university (61%) than do native-born students (43%).
In a recent look at the results from a Canadian longitudinal study of students who took the PISA exam in 2000, the OECD found that by the age of 24, immigrant students were able to erase the gap that had been present between immigrant and native students when they took their PISA exam at the age of 15, with the average PISA score of immigrant students at the second administration of the test (at age 24) being two points higher (601) than that of Canadian-born students (Figure 4). This is an increase of 77 points over the average score of immigrant students at the age of 15, which represents more than one proficiency level on the PISA scale. Canadian-born students, by contrast, gained just 54 points between the ages of 15 and 24 – still a large improvement, but not as large as the improvement made by students who had immigrated to Canada. It is important to note that immigrants are an exception. Other groups of students who were low performers on the 2000 administration of PISA (among them students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and Francophone students) continued to be low performers in the second administration of the exam, and the performance gap between these groups and the overall Canadian average was relatively unchanged ten years later. The authors of this report argue that the more equitable outcomes at the age of 24 are a result of both Canadian immigration and education policies, and that Canada provides effective education pathways to immigrant students, particularly beyond the level of compulsory education. The authors suggest that Canada’s policies can be useful to other countries experiencing high rates of immigration, and note that skills gaps can be addressed in the years between lower secondary school and the time at which students enter the workforce.
While Learning Beyond Fifteen does not go into real detail about the policies Canada employs to produce success among its immigrant students, the authors of the 2010 OECD publication Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States, have identified several strategies. The first is Canada’s immigration policies. Canada has encouraged, through public policy, the highly educated to move to Canada to fill specific economic and labor force needs. Because preference is given to these highly educated immigrants, they are not seen as a major threat to native-born Canadians and are therefore accepted more readily into Canadian society. Their children, too, have access to better resources. Immigrant children in Canada, unlike in most OECD countries, generally have access to resources that are equal to or greater than what their native-born counterparts are provided including high quality school buildings, low teacher-student ratios, healthy classroom climates and positive teacher morale. Immigrant students are typically mainstreamed into classes taught in English or French, to quickly integrate them into the system. At the same time, these students are provided with additional language classes both in and out of the classroom to allow them to keep up with their peers.