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Student performances in PISA tests a wake-up call for Thailand

EARLIER this month 2012 PISA test results were released and reported in the Thai press. In mathematics, science, and reading Thai students had improved slightly from 2009, but overall the Thai performance was below expectations and even poor, when compared to most countries involved in the testing.

PISA refers to the Programme for International Student Assessment, which is part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. PISA was initiated in 1998 and since 2000 has organised international examinations every three years.

In addition to the mathematics, science, and reading tests, they have added tests of problem-solving and financial literacy. The results of those tests will be released in 2014.

For the 2012 PISA test, Thailand scored 427 in mathematics - 50th among 65 participating countries - in science, 444, ranking 48th; and in reading, 441, tied for 48th. Countries with scores similar to Thailand were Malaysia, Chile, and Kazakhstan.

Five Asean countries participated in the testing. The best performing Asean countries in mathematics were Singapore, number two in the world, and Vietnam, number 17. Malaysia, 52nd, and Indonesia, 64th, lagged far behind.

The results for Singapore and Vietnam are not surprising. Though both countries are geographically and politically part of Southeast Asia, culturally and educationally they are part of the Confucian world with its strong emphasis on the high value of education and learning.

I have had the privilege of having taught in both Singapore and Vietnam. I was extremely impressed with the high motivation of my students. Interestingly, the physical facilities in which I taught in both Singapore and Vietnam were actually inferior to many of those I have experienced in modern Thailand.

Dr Sunee Klainklin is the current Thai PISA director. She notes that the slight improvement of Thai scores is related to improved teaching, which has resulted in a better performance of students in schools under the Office of the Basic Education Commission (OBEC). Also students from the demonstration schools and Princess Chulabhorn college schools (located in each region of the country) are among the high performers.

The PISA results indicate serious disparities, both between Bangkok students and those in other nations, as well as between students in Bangkok and Thai rural areas. In the maths test, 49.7 per cent of Thai students are low achievers scoring below level 2, with only 2.6 per cent of top performers at levels 5 or 6. The top performers are students primarily in elite and demonstration schools.

In terms of equity in educational resource allocation, Thailand is near the bottom of countries participating in the PISA programme with only Brazil, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Peru rated significantly lower.

In terms of teachers' salaries as a percent of GDP/capita, Thailand is in the mid-range.

Interestingly, in terms of students being happy in school, Thailand ranked fourth in the world, and Korea was last. Thai teachers and educational administrators should indeed take pride in this finding. What is more important than happiness?

What are the implications for Thailand of these most recent PISA results? Great care must be used in interpreting their meaning. First, it should be noted that there are prominent scholars who are critical of the validity and reliability of these tests, based on complex cultural differences among countries.

Second, it would be a mistake to teach to these tests, sacrificing creativity and the joy of learning.

Despite these reservations related to the tests themselves, Thai educational policy-makers must take these results seriously, as they further confirm the alarming quality of problems in Thai education, which threaten the country's future development prospects.

With the emergence of the Asean Economic community (AEC) in 2015, there will be increasing competition among Asean nations for international investments. Vietnam, for example - with its impressive PISA scores reflecting its success in education, a population of over 92 million people, and relatively low wages - will become increasingly attractive to international investors.

What then must be done?

First, serious efforts must be made to improve the equity of resource allocations.

Second, Thailand spends an impressively high percentage of its national budget on education, but doesn't get adequate "bang for its baht" in terms of quality. There is too much emphasis on expenditure - on bricks and mortar, personnel expansion and welfare - rather than focusing on improving quality and standards.

Third, if the new national Thai Language Policy is successfully implemented, then those whose mother tongue is not standard Thai, will become more engaged with school, and can start their study of mathematics, science, and reading in their mother tongue. This should serve to reduce disparities in achievement.

Fourth, more efforts must be made to foster a stronger reading culture. When on subways in Korea or Japan I see many people reading. When on the BTS Skytrain or MRT subway in Bangkok, I see so many people engaged with their state-of-the art electronic gadgets.

Fifth, Thailand must increase its expenditure on R & D. With respect to this criterion, it lags significantly behind many of its major Asia-Pacific competitors.

Finally it is important to stress learning how to learn and the need for life-long learning.

The 1999 educational reform primarily focused on structural changes and important new legislation. In the remainder of this decade, it is imperative that the stress be on enhancing the quality of education at every level to ensure Thailand's achievement of its great educational potential and long-term economic competitiveness.

GERALD W. FRY

Distinguished International Professor Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy, and Development, University of Minnesota.

Email: gwf@umn.edu


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