EDU Nation: Raising education’s standard or its standing?

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MALAYSIA aspires to be in the top third of countries in international education assessments via its performance in TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey) and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment).

These international tests are used to assess participating countries’ education systems and the impact of their education policies. The Malaysia Education Blueprint (MEB) 2013-2025 presents the route to achieve this goal within 15 years.

But could overzealousness in the game of ranking take precedence over the MEB’s intention to improve the outcome of each student’s learning? Are we taking desperate measures to chase perceived quality while foregoing our aim to close the achievement gaps of the rural versus urban schools in five years?

Malaysia has been participating in the quadrennial TIMSS since 1999. On an encouraging note, achieving top third is very possible for Malaysia as we have done it before. In TIMSS 2003, we were ranked 10th among 45 participating countries in mathematics. Our score in science was not in the top third but it was still above the international average.

In fact, Malaysia maintained its above-average international position in TIMSS in 1999, 2003 and 2007 but fell short in 2011. The TIMSS 2015 results are not out yet. The Form 2 classes of 2014 had sat for the test in October.

Students participating in PISA have to be 15 and in Malaysia, the majority of them are in Form 4. The questions in PISA emphasise the application of knowledge acquired throughout their schooling years and the answers are used to gauge their ability to cope with life beyond school. Malaysia has been participating in PISA since 2010. The PISA 2015 test, which will be held on April 27, will be the third time Malaysia is participating in it.

For a clearer picture, TIMSS requires the reproduction of facts or standard algorithms while PISA demands that connections be made using existing knowledge. Thus, PISA entails much reading on subjects of science and mathematics, although solving problems requires simpler use of mathematical or scientific principles. The tests in PISA are not as straightforward as in TIMSS as they require some thinking, analysis and data extrapolation.

Malaysia’s PISA 2012 results paint a bleak picture because 51.8% of those tested failed to reach the baseline level of reading, mathematics and science. This means the majority of the students will not be quality candidates for tertiary education or as employees, let alone job creators as envisioned in the Higher Education MEB.

To improve our performance in both these international tests and silence the critics, the Ministry of Education has devised intervention programmes and “mugging” sessions for the participating schools to ensure better scores.

Internationally, PISA is heavily criticised for allowing countries to manipulate the system in efforts to increase their ranking. These criticisms are directed largely at countries that go the extra mile to prepare their students for the test and grab the top spot, thus pushing down the real high performers.

The exemplary countries are outshone by those that succeed in beating the system. It seems Malaysia too cannot resist playing the ranking game. What is at stake is building a solid education system of high quality for the longer term.

At the recent Asian World Summit 3rd Education Nation Conference, the World Bank’s human development economist, Dilaka Lathapipat, observed that Malaysia spent the most on education as a percentage of gross domestic product among the countries participating in PISA.

However, the high spending has not translated into high achievements. Instead, it has widened the education inequality between the disadvantaged lower income group and the higher income group. The inequality starts at preschool for the disadvantaged group, underlining the fact that the allocation of educational resources to this group must be increased.

We need to focus on improving the overall quality and reach of education by removing system incompetence and efficiently allocating resources where they are needed the most and being sincere about the desire to improve the system at the core.

We have had enough of the stopgap measures taken to superficially correct the system. Merely adding higher-order thinking elements to examinations without properly coaching the coaches who will be coaching our children is a hollow methodology. Just follow the education framework of Finland or Canada.

Tunku Munawirah Putra is honorary secretary of PAGE Malaysia. PAGE is an educational lobby that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders.

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 20 - 26, 2015.