PISA Results: The Challenging Road Forward for Weaker ASEAN Countries

The latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) notes that Thailand and Indonesia continue to remain in the bottom ranks for their PISA scores. I argue here that low-performing countries can initiate reforms to improve their scores.


CountryPISA 2012PISA 2015


CountryPISA 2012PISA 2015


CountryPISA 2012PISA 2015

The above table indicates that Singapore is in the lead, scoring the highest amongst all participating countries in PISA. Singapore’s continued success in PISA can broadly be attributed to a long-standing system focused on languages and Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to develop human capital, high standards and societal aspirations for a better life. This ensures that Singaporean students have strong understanding of not just PISA subjects but it prepares them for the future working environment.

Thailand and Indonesia have remained in the lower ranks in both PISA tests. It is said that Thai students have little motivation to practise subjects such as mathematics. Indonesia has seen little change in its PISA ranking and individual PISA scores. The OECD notes that majority of Indonesian 15-year-old students appear not to see any value in studying science or pursuing science-related careers. This is due not only to poor school facilities but also due to the lack of science clubs for students in many Indonesian schools.

In PISA 2015, the OECD’s recommendations relevant to ASEAN countries include:

  1. Improving the learning environment for both teachers and students; 
  2. Encouraging student’s interest in science; 
  3. Improve access to education to rural children.

The first recommendation would pertain to both Indonesia’s and Thailand’s education systems, while the second would help improve Indonesia’s science scores and create more skilled workers. The third recommendation would also pertain to Thailand and Indonesia, given the weaker education results outside the capital cities.

These recommendations may first be said to be more theoretical than practical in nature. Both Indonesia and Thailand have diverse administrative structures and regions. Any constructive educational reform would require a focus on the local institutional environment and focused political will. Second, ASEAN countries may in fact wish to focus their education reforms on other areas beyond PISA. As a recent OECD report mentioned, countries should structure their education system to address global issues such as climate change, ageing population and information technology. Furthermore, it is argued that PISA methodology is simplistic and does not adequately prepare students for the future workforce.

I argue that educational improvement may be challenging and that the impact may be uncertain. Improvements in PISA results will not appear immediately in the short term, however, this should not dissuade governments from pursuing any reform. Governments do need to prepare students for the future landscape, however, countries with weaker PISA results should still focus their efforts on the core topics of science, mathematics and reading. This would not only ensure future stronger PISA results but also a more knowledgeable workforce. PISA is indeed a limited measurement of educational quality. It, however, will remain the mainstay global education test for the near future.

The next PISA results will be out again in 2018. PISA may not be a perfect test standard, and ASEAN countries may wish to focus on other areas of education. Despite the challenges and imperfections of PISA, ASEAN countries should focus on improving PISA results as it provides a framework for education reform and socio-economic development.

Dr. Li Jie Sheng is Research Analyst at The HEAD Foundation. His research area focuses on the effectiveness of donors and international organisations.

The HEAD Foundation Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary of topical issues and contemporary developments. The views expressed by the authors are solely their own and do not reflect opinions of The HEAD Foundation.

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