THE Education Minister recently expressed shock at the poor performance of Malaysian students in the PISA 2012 survey of over 500,000 15-year-olds in 64 countries on their levels of knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics, science and problem solving.
In every single domain, we are ranked at the bottom 10% to 15% of countries surveyed.
For a high middle-income country that prides itself in spending at least 20% of its annual budget on education, something is seriously wrong with the way these resources are allocated and used. The return on investment is dismal.
I visited the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) website and found the summary page for Malaysia. The findings are scary.
The Government owe the rakyat answers as to why we continue to perform so badly in spite of all kinds of reforms that have taken place over decades and the money spent annually on education.
Somehow we still have not gotten it right, while our competitors in the region are flying high.
Yes, we now have the Education Blueprint, yet another reform effort.
Obviously the 2006-2010 Blueprint did not achieve the results planned for given the rock bottom performance of Malaysian 15-year-olds, and the need for yet another Blueprint. One can only pray that those in charge have the will, dedication and passion needed to ensure the outcomes of the 2013-2025 Blueprint address the dire weaknesses identified by this comprehensive survey.
Let’s look at the scores and ranking. In terms of reading, Malaysia is ranked 58 out of 64 countries. About 52.7% of those surveyed could not read beyond the minimal Level 1. In Singapore, only 9.9% of its 15-year-olds are at that poor performance level. At the top proficiency levels 5 or 6, only 0.1% of our students made it there, compared to 21.2% in Singapore. Only two other countries have a lower percentage of top performers than Malaysia.
In spite of the annual parade of students scoring double digit As on the front pages of our newspapers, by international standards our education system is actually not producing top performers.
Our examinations obviously measure content knowledge, not analysis and interpretation, the real skills needed to survive and thrive in a knowledge economy.
This is not surprising in a culture that punishes those who do not conform, who ask difficult questions, who give answers out of the box. And in the domain of religion, it can actually be a criminal offence to ask questions or have a different understanding of Islam than the one sanctioned by the religious authorities.
In a society where those with power are obsessed with maintaining control, dominance, compliance, uniformity and conformity, it can only be expected that our education system eventually reflects those values, in spite of attempts at reform.
I looked at the assessment framework of the survey and found that what PISA measures is not just the capacity to read and understand literal information, but how students retrieve information, form a broad understanding, develop an interpretation, reflect on and evaluate both the content and the form of a text.
How do you teach a student to interpret, reflect, analyse, evaluate a text?
How are the teachers trained to be able to impart these skills? A friend who has a son in Form 1 is shocked that his English literature text book on the Swiss Robinson Family is not only so thin, but also filled with pictures fit for a nine-year old. Are we dumbing down our students and the syllabus so that more can score strings of As?
The PISA test requires students to read selected texts and answer a series of questions to evaluate their capacity to interpret and analyse. From reading an extract from a novel to a product notice on peanut content and the right of the buyer to return the product.
What PISA evaluates is called “reading literacy” whether the Malaysian 15-year-old is understanding, using, reflecting on and engaging with written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, develop one’s knowledge and potential, and participate effectively in society.
At level 1, the reader is only asked to locate explicitly stated information, recognise the main theme of a text or make a simple connection between information in the text and common every day knowledge.
In the 2009 PISA survey, 44% of Malaysian students performed at this level. Instead of doing better in the 2012 survey, a further 8.7% dropped into this level.
At level 2, the reader is asked to locate information which may need to be inferred, understand relationships, or construe meanings when information is not prominent. Only 31% of the Malaysian students could perform at this still low level.
PISA also measures students’ engagement, drive and self-belief. Again not surprisingly, the survey finds Malaysians at the bottom.
They are less likely to report that they are quick to understand, seek explanations, link facts together easily, and/or like to solve complex problems. Malaysia ranks 55 out of 64 countries.
The dismal findings of the level of knowledge and skills in mathematics (rank 61/64) and science (55/64) reflect similar distressing realities of the Malaysian education system.
While 40% of Singapore students performed at the top level in mathematics, only 1.3% of Malaysians achieved that level.
The only piece of good news is that Malaysia is one of the few countries where girls outperform boys in all three subject areas – reading, mathematics and science, with the biggest gender gap in reading.
PISA conducts an assessment domain in the area of problem-solving competency. It believes the study of an individual’s problem-solving strengths offers a window into their capabilities to employ basic thinking and other general cognitive approaches to confronting challenges in life.
It provides a basis for future learning, for effective participation in society and for conducting personal activities.
Again, Malaysia scores close to the bottom. Of the 42 countries surveyed, Malaysia ranks at 37 with half of the students reaching only level 1 performance.
Only one other country did worse than Malaysia in terms of the percentage of top performers at proficiency levels 5 or 6.
While our mathematics mean score has improved since the 2009 survey (still, only three other countries did worse than us), the scores for reading and science have fallen. A significant percentage, if not the majority of Malaysian students, continue to perform at below minimum proficiency level as defined by PISA.
While the Government might tout that its education budget is high, the survey found that the cumulative expenditure by educational institutions per student aged six to 15 is actually one of the lowest among PISA-participating countries and economies (rank 45/49).
Obviously, either the money went largely to tertiary education and other expenses or the total budget is just not high enough to produce the outcomes envisaged.
Another disturbing, but not surprising finding, is the gap in performance between Malaysian students in government and private schools – one of the highest gaps in participating countries, with the gap in Mathematics the biggest.
So obviously the rich who are able to afford private education for their children are getting a better deal in setting up their children for life, while over 90% of those surveyed who go to government schools are being disadvantaged because of a failing education system.
In the 2009 PISA survey, 80% of the participating schools (121/152) fell into the poor performance bracket. About 13% made it to fair and only 7% entered the good performance bracket. None was great or excellent. I could not locate this score in the 2012 survey.
Just comparing Malaysia’s performance to Singapore (which ranks second in mathematics, third in reading and science and first in problem-solving), what these scores and rankings mean is that 15-year-olds in Malaysia are performing as if they have received the equivalent of almost four years less schooling in reading, mathematics and science compared to the Singapore 15-year-olds.
If these data do not wake up our authorities to the dire straits we are in, I don’t know what else will.
If we are serious in believing in the PISA philosophy that learning outcomes at school are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run, then those in charge of the education system and the parents who worry about their children’s future must crack the whip.
The Education Blueprint promises a major transformation by 2025. By then, Malaysia will be in the top one-third of the PISA ranking, it states. And standards for student outcomes and learning practices will be benchmarked against the high performing education systems.
The focus will be on higher order thinking skills such as application and reasoning, and not just content knowledge. This means looking at the success of the top five countries and economies – Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan – and even Vietnam, ranked a high 17.
Almost two years have passed since the Blueprint was launched. Is performance on track? How has recruitment into teachers training colleges changed to attract the brightest? How has pedagogy changed to enable students to develop high order thinking skills?
There must be better transparency and an annual progress report presented to the public.
I hope the Parents Action Group for Education Malaysia will take up the cause in demanding and monitoring the implementation of the Education Blueprint and access to the full results and analysis of the PISA survey and how the Government uses this data to guide implementation and monitor outcomes.
The Blueprint notes that internationally, education system reforms fail for common reasons – insufficient will, time and commitment from all political and ministry leaders; inability to stay the course under intense challenges from those opposed to the changes; paralysis in the face of polarising debates led by teachers and other stakeholders, resistance to change amongst teachers, or capacity gaps within the ministry.
It points out that while these obstacles are daunting, research shows it is possible to overcome them and deliver fundamental improvements in as little as six years.
So please get cracking and transform these words into deeds. Zainah Anwar The STAR Home Opinion Columnist Sharing the Nation 7 Jun 2015