Students, teachers, and principals share their strong feelings about the volatile mix of GPA, GPAX, O-Net and A-Net results to be used as university admissions criteria
Story and photos by WEENA NOPPAKUNTHONG
One reason for the major change was that students concentrated only on subjects required for their desired faculty and neglected other core curriculum subjects. This alarmed the Council of University Presidents of Thailand and the Office of the Higher Education Commission (Ohec) that high school graduates were not equipped with the broad knowledge afforded by the other subject areas required by the Ministry of Education's (MOE) national curriculum.
Tutorial schools only made it worse by emphasizing the importance of college entrance exams, and not encouraging students to dedicate themselves to the full curriculum. The "entrance exam only" approach leads to a lack of interest by students in the overall school curriculum.
The new admissions system, then, hopes to make students apply themselves to the full curriculum by including an average of their class grades among the admissions criteria, whether it is their grade point average (GPA) or their accumulated grade point average (GPAX), along with the results of the O-Net (which tests students' knowledge of general subjects) and the A-Net (which tests students' special skills demanded by some university faculties).
O-Net, A-Net nexus
For Thai college admissions, Grade12 students are required to take the O-Net, as administered by the National Institute of Educational Testing Services (Niets), which comprises these five core subjects: Thai, English, mathematics, science, and social studies.
Niets has confirmed that the O-Net on March 1-2, 2008, will include three additional core subjects - health and physical education, vocational subjects and technology, and arts, which are already part of the national curriculum. The announcement, however, has been received with widespread resistance among students and parents.
O-Net can only be taken once. The examination is administered nationwide for all students on the same date at test sites at various university campuses in Bangkok and regional centers. The next A-Net will be administered in March 2008, a few days following the O-Net.
Unlike the O-Net, however, not all students are required to take the A-Net because only some faculties demand that their applicants take specialized subjects in order to determine their qualification for admission, for which secondary school grades and the O-Net may not be adequate indicators of the student's qualifications.
Students enrolling for the Political Science faculty last year, majoring in international relations, for example, were required to take Social Science Level Two and any of the following languages: French, German, Bali, Arabic, Chinese, and Japanese for the A-Net.
Currently, the combined O-Net and A-Net scores constitute 70 percent of the total points for admission, with each faculty allowed to make small variations within this formula. The remaining 30 percent is comprised of 20 percent for a student's GPA and 10 percent for a student's GPAX or accumulated grade point average. (But see ``ReportCard'' at L2). It is both the weighting and inclusion of the GPA and GPAX in the university admissions scheme that have attracted the ire of students, parents and administrators.
GPA and GPAX
GPA measures the average grade for each core subject for upper secondary school, which would help colleges select students based on their expertise and capability. For instance, when a student has a high GPA in science-related subjects, he or she has a greater chance of successfully applying to a science faculty.
GPAX, on the other hand, gives a general overview by reflecting the average grade that students earned for all subjects throughout their final three years at secondary school.
O-Net, pros and cons
O-Net acts as a counterbalance for GPA and GPAX in cases where schools inflate students' GPA in order to increase students' chances of being admitted into universities. Advocates of O-Net say the exam reflects how a student compares academically to other students on a national scale.
O-Net is also said to reflect the quality of teaching and, as such, forces teachers to improve their knowledge and teaching skills, thereby better preparing students to pass the exam. If teachers were allowed to give tests on their own, without the O-Net as a standardized assessment, advocates fear teachers would pass students without them obtaining very much knowledge.
On the other hand, critics of O-Net say teachers focus too much on the national curriculum - which is geared directly to the national exam - and neglect the school's local curriculum.
GPA as motivator
Since the GPA has been in the spotlight, teachers are reporting that students are more attentive and motivated to learn in class, says Sister Saisawat Radomkit, principal of Marie Upatham School, in Nakornpathom province.
If classroom grades are not tied to college admissions, students are less interested and class attendance drops as entrance exams approach. A Grade 12 student at Srinakharinwirot University's Patumwan Demonstration School in downtown Bangkok, Yindee Limpives says, ``the GPA makes classroom studies more meaningful.''
The GPA also measures students' work and efforts during their final three years in high school, rather than a few hours tested by O-Net and A-Net. Another positive point is that it allows students time to prepare for college; otherwise some students would wait until the national exam and cram to pass it.
Tutorials still booming
The new admissions scheme did not resolve the issue of students rushing to take tutorial courses, as students, teachers and principals alike acknowledge that the inclusion of the GPA did not reduce the number of students taking tutorials.
Students view tutorial classes as beneficial not only for the O-Net and A-Net, but for their GPA as well, as they can function as a review of class materials.
Associate Prof Vanchai Sirichana, chairman of the Council of University Presidents of Thailand, views tutorials as inevitable as long as the government uses examinations to assess students' qualifications.
"Students are not confident about their [academic] competence in comparison to other students. They do not want to lag behind, and they are not confident that the school's curriculum is sufficient to prepare them for the examination," he says.
Many students don't blame the high number of students that use tutorial courses on teacher quality. Instead, they politely offer the excuse that their teachers are not experts in every subject area. Therefore, they are wise to seek help from an outside course. Similarly, teachers are reluctant to admit their lack of teaching skills for fear of damaging their school's reputation.
A mother of a Grade12 student, Chantima Mukyangkoon who is also a business owner, urges the Education Ministry to improve the teachers' quality of life, particularly by increasing their salary, benefits and status in society so teachers can perform their roles better.
Advocates of tutorial courses also argue that tutorials teach exam techniques to students and train them to answer questions under exam conditions, which allow students a set amount of time to complete each section.
However, Ajarn Chaisak Leelajaruskul, the deputy director of Academics at Patumwan Demonstration School, says that tutorials teach students bad habits because the instructors, in order to complete massive amounts of course material in a short time, spoon feed students every answer.
As a result, students are not required to think or otherwise struggle to attain the best answer. When students return to class they expect regular teachers to give them the answers without requiring any effort from students.
A Grade10 student, Elisa Phanichamnuay, from Mater Dei School, admits that in her view students are becoming less ethical in their study habits, as evidenced by the increase in cheating among students.
"There is an increase in students cheating because the education system forces students to compete against one another for the few coveted seats in the best universities. This forces students to do almost anything to attain a high grade, even cheating on exams," says Elisa.
Likewise, Panta Srinawawong, 18, from Marie Upatham, says that including the GPA among university admissions criteria will make them: selfish and less likely to assist their fellow students, unwilling to share class notes and study materials, and act in improper ways to get a good grade.
Teachers declare that a few students will always cheat, regardless of whether the GPA is or is not part of the admissions scheme, and it is the role of the teacher to inflict harsh punishment against the offenders.
Inflating grades to enhance GPA
Many students, teachers, and parents agree that schools have different grading standards, and therefore it would be a problem to assign a very high weight to the GPA. However, Ajarn Winai Pewkliang, principal at St John School, says that teachers are professionals. Therefore, he is confident that teachers will give fair grades.
Associate Prof Vanchai says that it is questionable whether the GPA accurately measures students' academic abilities because of the varied grading standards among schools. It is widely acknowledged that many schools are too quick to assign high marks; many are reluctant to assign high grades; while others assign grades on a fair and reasonable basis.
Luxnara Yaovaphankul, 16, a student at the all-girls' Mater Dei School, says her former classmate is a clear example of how grading policies differ. Her former classmate received only average grades at Mater Dei, but when she transferred to a state school, the relaxed grading policies elevated her to the number two student in her class.
Ajarn Winai counters these arguments by offering that most schools in Bangkok are viewed as having the best equipment, the most modern facilities, and the most advanced instruction methodologies, compared to provincial schools. So when students from the provinces score higher and are admitted to the top universities in the capital, it proves those schools are not handing out ``easy'' grades.
Another advantage for including the GPA in the university admissions scheme is that it also comprises grades for homework and class assignments. Therefore, it measures how hardworking and determined a student is over a long period of time, rather than just their innate abilities or how well they cram for the national exam, says 17-year-old Athiwuth Phanprechakij, a student at an all boys' school, Bangkok Christian College.
Pleas to the Education Ministry
Many students object to the ministry's move to add three subjects to the 2008 O-Net exam (academic year 2007), making a total of eight core subjects on the exam.
They argue that the additional subjects contribute nothing useful and are not required by their chosen faculty. Some students believe the three subjects only add a burden to the current five-subject study load.
Ajarn Winai, however, rejects the added burden theory because schools are already teaching these subjects.
He argues that MOE's policies change with each new government, and keeping up with the changes exhausts teachers and school administrators. Parents and teachers urge the MOE to stabilize the admissions criteria. Students, too, want clarity and stability.
Peachaya Mukyangkoon, from Satit Kaset School, for example, says the upcoming O-Net exam is only seven months away and students still don't know what percentage points will apply on the 2008 admissions scheme.
The Council of University Presidents has decided to take A-Net out of university admissions scheme in 2010. The reason given by the chairman is that the A-Net currently overlaps the O-Net. Therefore, only the O-Net will be used in 2010.
Likewise, because the GPAX and the GPA assess very similar academic criteria, only GPAX will remain as part of the admissions scheme in 2010. The GPAX and the O-Net jointly will comprise 50 percent of the admissions formula.
An aptitude test - which is a standardized test that measures a person's ability to learn certain skills or acquire knowledge - will constitute the third portion of the admissions scheme in 2010 and will be weighted at 50 percent of the formula. The ministry will retain authority to vary the weighting percentages slightly. All three segments of the exam will be administered by Niets and will test students' analytical skills.
Ajarn Watanakit Sittisatitaungol, guidance department head at Bangkok Christian College, hopes that the MOE will set clear and reasonable policies and retain them beyond the present administration. He says any alterations in the admissions scheme will be changes in name only, because the end result is the same: students will be assessed by an exam.
Even as this article was being finalized, more formulas were being discussed by the ministry. See ``ReportCard''.
Many attempts were made by Learning Post to arrange an interview of Dr Wichit Srisa-arn, Education Minister, to seek clarity and to directly explore and compare the MOE's many positions on the issues raised in this article, but our repeated attempts were unsuccessful.
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Last modified: August 6, 2007