Assessment, Diversity, School Community

The Immigrant (Dis)advantage

Addressing student achievement gaps

CANADA IS WIDELY RECOGNIZED as one of the most culturally diverse countries in the developed world. Not surprisingly, it is a preferred destination for immigrants and refugees seeking to build a better life for their children. Indeed, according to the latest data published in the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX, 2015), only Luxembourg, at 46 percent, has a higher percentage of first- and second-generation immigrant students within their school system than Canada, which has 29.6 percent.1 Canada’s openness is also evidenced by the arrival of more than 30,000 Syrian refugees over the last year.2  The responsibility for educating these immigrant and refugee students rests squarely with provincial governments, as Canada does not possess a federal ministry of education.

The integration of immigrant students within provincial education systems is essential for their future academic success and economic prosperity. One of the most frequently used ways to evaluate academic integration is through comparisons of international achievement test scores, such as those reported by the Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA). This international achievement test has assumed priority status around the world and has even been likened to the “Olympics of education” in the popular media,3 attracting considerable attention across Canada. It is worth noting that the PISA triennial survey is coordinated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It assesses three “life skill” educational domains – reading literacy, mathematical literacy, and scientific literacy – in approximately 70 educational jurisdictions around the world. What makes PISA particularly useful for Canadian policymakers is that provincial mean scores are reported separately from the national average. This allows provinces to judge their performance against one another as well as international standards.

Over its 15-year history, one of PISA’s most consistent findings is that immigrant students typically underachieve relative to their non-migrant counterparts.4 Interestingly, this pattern does not fully characterize the Canadian context. Rather, what is aptly called the “performance disadvantage” for immigrant students is actually an advantage in some provinces, at least in mathematics  – as indicated by the statistically significant higher mean PISA 2012 mathematics scores in British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces.

Furthermore, when socio-economic status is accounted for in the analysis, B.C., Ontario and the Atlantic region have higher math scores for first-generation immigrant students, as does Alberta for second-generation immigrant students. Conversely, provinces such as Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan possess significantly lower levels of mathematics performance for immigrant student groups. In the case of Quebec, the difference between non-migrants and first- and second-generation immigrant students was also larger than the OECD average, when SES was controlled for in the analysis. So Canadian immigrant students may demonstrate anything from a performance advantage to an acute disadvantage, depending on the province in which they live.5

Collectively, Canada is a fairly anomalous jurisdiction in comparison to the international community. Indeed, only two out of 25 European countries (Slovakia and Hungary) had PISA 2012 mathematics results in which immigrants outperformed non-migrants after adjusting for SES,6 and these score differences were smaller than those reported in B.C. and the Atlantic region. Overall, the European Commission report noted the typical performance disadvantage for European immigrant students, noting that in some cases non-migrants outperformed immigrant students by more than 60 points, which translates to approximately 1.5 years of schooling.

Provincial variations in student achievement must also be interpreted in relation to other tested domains. For example, PISA surveys focused on reading literacy indicated that immigrant students performed at a lower level in comparison to their non-migrant peers in every province across Canada, with the exception of the Atlantic region, where the results were identical.7 In Quebec, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, immigrant students’ reading scores were much lower, and the reported differences were statistically significant.8 Similarly, when the PISA survey focused on science literacy, the performance disadvantage was apparent in every province, with the largest differences observed in Quebec.9

Canada’s Challenge

Canada’s PISA results suggest that reducing the immigrant student performance disadvantage may be more challenging in the reading and science domains, as well as in individual provinces such as Quebec.

It is important to acknowledge that country of origin likely exerts a pronounced influence on student achievement. Hou and Zhang argue that variation by source region likely reflects cultural differences in the value placed on education and the level of effort put into the education of their children. In their Statistics Canada report, they argued that children of immigrants from East Asia (e.g. China) and South Asia (e.g. India) tend to have a higher educational attainment than those from Southeast Asia (e.g. Philippines), the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Southern Europe.

While country of origin may partially explain some of the achievement differences reported across provinces, there is a danger in making skewed assertions of the academic potential of particular cultural groups. As an open society, we should treat immigrant families as all having the potential to make an important social and economic contribution to Canada. Moreover, the available research is very clear in demonstrating the significant explanatory power of parental socioeconomic background for student achievement. Thus, the academic integration of immigrant children is invariably connected to the economic integration of their parents. This fact suggests that a comprehensive approach to the settlement of immigrant families may foster future academic success. In many respects, education policies for immigrant students cannot be separated from the influence of social and economic policies for immigrant parents.

High levels of educational achievement and educational equity are widely recognized around the world as the hallmarks of a successful public education system. Some have suggested that immigration makes it more challenging for nations to address both of these critical goals. Indeed, there are political parties across the Western world that have argued for very selective immigration measures, largely based on the country or ethnicity of applicants. The Canadian government, to date, has not taken this approach and continues to see cultural diversity as an important strength rather than a weakness. Nevertheless, the significant number of first- and second-generation immigrants, including refugees, who are making Canada their home presents a formidable challenge for provincial education systems. Proper supports, such as English- and French-language classes for arriving families, are essential for immigrant students’ academic success. At the same time, more research is needed to uncover under what conditions students with a migration background perform better and to discover the reasons why some groups of students face greater challenges than others.

It is clear that some countries and educational jurisdictions have done a better job of facilitating the transition for immigrants, which is reflected in their enhanced student achievement. Canada ranks significantly higher than the international average in the use of effective immigrant policies and has done a fairly good job of supporting the academic achievement of their immigrant student population. Nevertheless, the challenge of immigrant integration is still a pressing concern for national and provincial governments,10 as evidenced by the performance disadvantages that are present in several Canadian provinces. Ultimately, it is up to provincial governments to study and reduce these achievement gaps. To date, our PISA results suggest we have much to celebrate, but also some cause for concern.


Photo: iStock

First published in Education Canada, March 2017

1 T. Huddleston, Ö.Bilgili, A. L. Joki and Z. Vankova, MIPEX 2015 (Brussels: Migration Policy Group, 2015).

2 Government of Canada (2016). Canada Resettles Syrian Refugees. www.cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/welcome/

3 C. Alphonso, “Canadian teens ace OECD problem-solving test,” Globe and Mail (April 1, 2014).


4 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, “Can the Performance Gap Between Immigrant and Non-Immigrant Students Be Closed?” PISA in Focus No. 53 (Paris, France: OECD Publishing, 2015).

5 For a more detailed breakdown, see: Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, Immigrants in Canada: Does Socio-economic background matter? (2015). www.cmec.ca/Publications/Lists/Publications/Attachments/343/AMatters_No9_EN.pdf

6 European Commission, PISA 2012: EU performance and first inferences regarding        education and training policies in Europe (Brussels: 2013). http://ec.europa.eu/education/policy/strategic-framework/doc/pisa2012_en.pdf

7 Hou, F., & Zhang, Q. Regional Differences in the Educational Outcomes of Young Immigrants (Statistics Canada, 2015).


8 Hou & Zhang, Regional Differences.

9 Hou & Zhang, Regional Differences.

10 Migrant Integration Policy Index, Education: Key findings (2015).


Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Louis Volante

Professor, Brock University & UNU-MERIT

Louis Volante, PhD, is a Professor at Brock University and a Professorial Fellow at UNU-MERIT/Maastricht Graduate School of Governance. His current research is focused on multi-level education governance, comparative policy analysis, impact evaluation of policies and programs, politics of education reform, international large-scale assessments and transnational governance, and cross-national educational inequalities.

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Don A. Klinger

Dr. Don A. Klinger

Pro Vice-Chancellor, Division of Education, University of Waikato

Don Klinger, PhD, is Pro Vice-Chancellor for Te Wānanga Toi Tangata Division of Education at the University of Waikato. His research focuses heavily on the formative and summative methods used to measure student outcomes, and the resulting decisions and actions made with assessment data.

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Özge Bilgili

Özge Bilgili

Post-doctoral researcher at UNU-MERIT

Özge Bilgili, PhD, is a post-doctoral researcher on transnationalism and the theme leader of Integration, Social Cohesion and Transnationalism research at UNU-MERIT (United Nations University – Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology) and the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, in the Netherlands. 

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Melissa Siegel

Melissa Siegel

Professor and Head of Migration Studies at UNU-MERIT

Melissa Siegel, PhD, is a Professor and Head of Migration Studies at UNU-MERIT and the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, in the Netherlands. She is currently the Head of the United Nations University Migration Network.

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