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PISA 2018: A wake up call for many

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On 3rd December 2019, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the results of their 7th edition of the ​Programme for International Student Assessment, better known as PISA. The results of the test administered to 600,000 15-year-olds around the world stirred the education community, prompting many countries to reflect on the state and effectiveness of their education systems.

Despite an average increase in educational spending per student over the past few decades, the performance of 15-year-olds across OECD nations have stagnated. Japanese students ranked 15th in reading in the latest edition, dropping down 12 points and seven positions from the 2015 test. Across the pacific in the US, disappointing results cast doubts on the country’s education reforms and spending. Closer to home, Indonesia’s scores have slipped despite continued investments in teachers and research.

First-timer Philippines, who was ranked last in reading and second last in mathematics and sciences, optimistically viewed the results as a baseline to aid in policy formulation, planning, and programming. Similarly in Singapore, the Ministry of Education reacted well to country’s slip to the second place; PISA helped the ministry reflect and learn from other countries to continuously improve our education system. This sentiment, however, did not seem to be reflected in the general population. 3 out of 4 15-year-olds in the island-state fear and worry about failure; some parents persist with expecting the best from their children; teachers continue to exert pressure on students.

PISA results revealed inequalities in education

While careful not to diminish China’s accomplishment in PISA, it is important to note that China is only represented by four provinces: Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang—some of the richest in the country. This selective representation of just 13 percent of the population ignores the rural poor, and west and inner China. The pervasive socioeconomic, and educational inequalities, in the country are thus not captured in the study.

In education darling Finland, PISA results revealed that gender disparity in reading in the country was one of the widest among the participating countries. Basic education in Finland has long been touted as one of the most equal in the world, but the results seemed to paint a different picture; the reading skills gap between the highest and lowest socioeconomic groups in the Nordic nation corresponded to a difference of two years of schooling.

Apart from inequality within countries, the test also highlighted the chasm between countries; while many marvel over Asia’s resounding success in the top spots of the test, other Asian countries, such as those from Southeast Asia, sit quietly at the bottom of the table. This painted a gloomy future for Asia: as the education powerhouses experience a demographic shift, it is up to the growing countries—Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand— to rise up to the challenge of developing a stronger Asia. However, it would be challenging without adequate education systems.

Reflecting on and learning from PISA performance

The release of the PISA results sparked conversations in Australia, whose 2018 performance was the country’s worst. Julie Sonnemann, Fellow at the Grattan Institute, suggested relooking at teacher recruitment and professional development to improve teaching effectiveness. Similarly, the University of Melbourne recommended investing in teaching quality—from improving teacher preparation and development to reducing teacher workload. Annie O’Rourke called for emphasising the teaching of STEM skills to girls. Her view was echoed by Prof Queena N. Lee-Chua of Ateneo de Manila Universty in the Philippines, who recommended changing the way society sees and values education.

We can also take a leaf out of Estonia’s book, one of the European countries leading the pack: invest in early childhood education, administer fewer tests, have all-ability classes, and utilise technology.

The limits of PISA

However, several experts cautioned against rushing into policy reforms. The Economist talked about ‘The Parable of Finland‘; wholesale copying of policies of well-performing countries might not be feasible. Prof Alan Reid of the University of South Australia expressed that the sampling and testing methodologies of PISA are not flawless, and there is no obvious link between PISA results and proposed reforms.

Calls have been made in many countries to reduce the importance of standardised tests, with Singapore axing mid-year examinations for year 1 and 2 students and revamping the scoring for national examination, PSLE. However, the furore over the PISA results, itself a standardised test, suggests that many systems may not be ready to move away from testing.

Until a better assessment is developed, PISA will continue to be the Olympics of education that many policymakers and educators turn to.

Jasmine Ng is Executive, Projects and Communications at The HEAD Foundation. 

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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Mr Ho Swee Huat

Mr Ho Swee Huat is the Founder and Managing Director of Abacus Assets Advisors Pte Ltd. Before starting the company, he had an established career in the banking industry, with 20 years of experience in Singapore, Hong Kong and New York.

He was an Independent Director and Chairman of the Audit Committee of CapitaCommercial Trust Management LTD from 2004 to 2013.

He is the current Chairman of Autism Association (Singapore) which he co-founded with a group of parents in 1992. He is also Vice-Chairman of Eden School, a special school for children with autism.

Mr Ho holds a Master’s degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Liberal Arts degree in Economics from Hamilton College, USA.

He has been a member of the Board of the Foundation since its incorporation.