Even as the latest TIMSS scores indicate a continuing drop for Malaysian students, there needs to be more in-depth analysis than just knee-jerk reaction.
IMAGINE two continents separated by water. What sort of fossils would you look for to prove that the continents were once joined?
Can you find the value of x in this equation: 9x – 6 < 4x+ 4?
If you cannot figure out the answers to these questions in about 10 minutes or so, you are not alone.
Only 5% and 3% of Malaysian Form Two students respectively answered these questions correctly in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2011.
While these were deemed as questions for above average students, it was disconcerting to note that only 67% of our 14-year-olds could identify the chemical formula for carbon dioxide.
Conducted in schools in 63 countries last year, the results of the global student assessment for Mathematics and Science was only announced on Wednesday.
With the international “intermediate” achievement set at 475 points, Malaysia’s most recent scoring of 440 in Mathematics and 426 in Science has been a source of much hand-wringing.
In comparison, the top performing countries for Mathematics based on students’ average scores were Taiwan (Chinese-Taipei), Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong and Japan.
There was not much difference in terms of who came up tops in Science other than the order; Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan.
TIMSS is a project by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), which describes itself as an independent cooperative of education research institutions and government research agencies.
First conducted in 1995, TIMSS assesses fourth (Year Four) and eighth grade (Form Two) students around the world on curriculum content shared by participating countries.
The tests contain multiple choice and structured subjective questions, and are carried out in the main language of instruction in the respective countries.
Having participated in the survey since 1999 with only Form Two cohorts, Malaysia has been generally recording a downward trend.
For 2011, a total of 5,773 students from 180 schools across Malaysia were assessed, and students were selected based on representative sampling.
Rather than the test scores, the TIMSS surveys filled in by students, teachers and principals offer a bit more context to who these test-takers were — the caveat being that these were self-reported questionnaires.
More than any other factor considered – school environment and location, native language, and even teachers – Malaysian students’ family background seem to skew their results the most.
The home environment of students was grouped in three broad categories: many resources; some resources; and few resources.
“Many resources” meant that students generally had more than 100 books at home, had their own room and Internet connection, and at least one parent having completed university – 4% of Malaysian students were identified as such.
Meanwhile, 35% of students had “few resources” in that they generally had 25 or fewer books at home, neither their own room nor Internet connection and neither parent having studied beyond upper secondary school.
The remaining 66% of students were grouped in the “some resources” category.
For both Mathematics and Science, the difference between students from both extremes were more than 120 points, and students with “many resources” achieved 525 and 526 points for Mathematics and Science respectively.
Another point to note was how teachers’ training affected the test scores of Malaysian students.
Students who had teachers with a degree in Mathematics Education scored much less than those with teachers who only had a degree in Mathematics, or even non-related degrees.
Students were also asked about how much they enjoyed and valued both subjects.
Interestingly, students from countries that ranked highly in the tests also recorded the most dislike for the subjects — particularly Taiwan, Japan and South Korea.
What may be of bigger concern to us is that over half of the Malaysian students said that they did not feel confident in tackling both subjects.
Taken on their own, it would be ironic to go into a blind panic based on test scores alone — especially if we are currently pushing to move away from an examination-orientated system.
However, the hard numbers can provide some insight into what we can do better if they are analysed meaningfully, honestly, and in depth.
The preliminary report of the Malaysia Education Blueprint has already indicated a goal of being in the top third in the world for assessments like TIMSS.
The question is how are we going to get there — by teaching to the test (or “benchmarks”) or staying true to the principles of providing all children with a solid and holistic education?
·For the full TIMSS 2011 reports (and the answers to the sample questions above), go to http://timss.bc.edu/