Poor exam results put schools on the spot
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Poor exam results put schools on the spot

High-flyers fail to compensate for decline in this year's Pisa ranking

Thailand's latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) scores, the lowest in more than two decades since the country joined the Pisa Assessment process in the early 2000s, are a wake-up call for stakeholders to help speed up improvement in the education system.

Thai students' performance in maths, science and reading all slumped to their lowest levels.

In the 2022 tests by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 15-year-old Thai students scored 394 in maths (down from 419 in the 2018 assessment), 409 in science (down from 426) and 379 in reading (down from 393).

Thailand ranked 58th for maths and science and 64th for reading, which was the country's worst performance since Thai students participated for the first time in Pisa in 2001.

The assessment covered 81 countries and economies with some 690,000 students taking the assessment in 2022, representing about 29 million 15-year-olds in the schools of the participating countries and economies.

In Thailand, 8,495 students in 279 schools completed the assessment in mathematics, reading or science, representing about 604,600 15-year-old students in the schools of the 81 participating countries and economies.

The assessments measure the knowledge and skills of students in three subjects and how well students can solve complex problems, think critically and communicate effectively. They present education authorities some challenges in how to improve the education system.

The Bangkok Post talked to several stakeholders about how education can be improved.

Pisa insights

Siripong Angkasakulkiat, assistant to Education Minister Pol Gen Permpoon Chidchob, said the results underscore the fact there is a wide learning gap in the country's education system.

"The average scores of Thai students in the maths-science field enrolled in prestigious schools are higher than those of their peers in Singapore. But in the overall picture, our ranking is lower. That's proof of the education divide that we need to tackle," he said.

He said authorities should consider changing the way classes are conducted and focus on how to encourage critical thinking and problem-solving.

Students should be made familiar with the use of technology which is crucial to successful performance in Pisa tests, he said.

"These issues must be discussed and, if possible, changes ready for implementation before the next school year starts. Our students should excel in class and they must also be able to apply the knowledge in daily life," he said.

He said the Education Council will meet tomorrow to pinpoint issues that need to be improved including various laws while the education minister's team will focus on revamping the education system.

According to Mr Siripong, the teaching methods and the curriculum employed at Princess Chulabhorn Science High School, which is under the supervision of the Basic Education Commission, will be studied to determine if they can be used as a model or adapted at other schools.

Siripong: Tackle education divide

Princess Chulabhorn Science High School, also known as PCSHS, is the name given to a group of science-based co-education boarding schools established by the Ministry of Education to honour science-oriented Princess Chulabhorn in 1993.

PCSHS schools, of which there are 12 including institutions in Trang, Pathum Thani, Loei and Chon Buri, focus on developing the talents of students in grades 7-12 (secondary and high school students) in science, mathematics, technology, and the environment to support science and technology professionals in Thailand.

The Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation (MHESRI) and the Bureau of Educational Testing will also be consulted on whether testing should focus more on analytical thinking and practical applications of knowledge alongside reading and writing skills.

He said the ministry has set both short-term and long-term goals. In the long term, it aims to improve overall standards after publicity of the Pisa results prompted questions about the quality of Thai education. In the short term, the ministry plans to use Princess Chulabhorn Science High School as a model.

Asked whether the Pisa scores are indicative of a crisis, he said standards are still high but so is disparity in the system due to factors including financial support differing teaching methods.

"Thai students are smart, given their performances in international academic competitions. But many children don't have that opportunity," he said.

He said Princess Chulabhorn Science High School has a network of affiliated schools, making it an ideal model in schools where indicators for success are clearly defined.

"By 2025, the results of Pisa tests must improve, but we have other indicators as well. Education management and access to technology might have lagged during the Covid-19 pandemic, but we will work on that," he said.

Beyond 2025

Kraiyot Phatthrawat, manager of the Equitable Education Fund, said the Equitable Education Research Institute (EEFI) is studying data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) for targeted interventions.

Based on the survey of more than 8,000 students, most Thai students are below Level 1, which is basic proficiency, in maths, reading and science. The percentages of students performing at advanced or exceptional levels are relatively low across all subjects.

In maths, 68.3% of the students are below Level 1 and only 1% of students are at advanced or exceptional levels. In reading, about 65.4% are below Level 1 and only 0.2% are advanced or exceptional levels. In science, about 53% of students are below Level 1 and only 0.6% are at advanced or exceptional levels.

"Our students win gold in the academic Olympics every year because we send the best who can compete internationally. But for every 100 students, we observe that only one student ranks among the best, while 70 students fall below the expected proficiency level," he said.

Mr Kraiyot said the disparity would be even larger with a bigger sample size and this highlights the urgency for strategies to address the diverse range of student abilities and narrow the gap to align more closely with Pisa's average scores.

A family's finances do have a bearing on academic performance as shown by the results of the Pisa survey on the participants' financial situation.

Among the wealthiest 25% of Thai students, the performance gap is narrow -- 52% students passed the tests, while 48% failed.

However, among the poorest 25% of Thai students, the performance gap is substantial, with only 22.57% passing the tests.

However, despite economic disadvantages, 260 students showed outstanding performance in the Pisa survey. The scores of this group in the three subjects are higher than the average score of the wealthiest 25% of Thai students.

This group of "high-achieving, low-income" students usually leaves the education system to enter the workforce directly instead of pursuing higher education, he said, adding state agencies must recognise their potential and provide them with opportunities.

Growth mindset

According to Mr Kraiyot, "high-achieving, low-income" students have what is known as a growth mindset characterised by resilience and confidence in tackling challenges.

The mindset comprises the elements of optimism, compassion, enthusiasm, discipline and curiosity and instilling it in other children can enhance their performance and achievement, he said.

He said families and schools will have to work together to cultivate these qualities in children so they are better equipped to solve problems and excel in learning.

One finding in the Pisa assessment is that students feel they spend considerable time on learning activities but do not think they have accomplished much and feel detached from the school community.

The Equitable Education Fund has adopted for trial use the Platform for Innovative Learning Assessments (Pila) which allows students to engage interactively and make corrections during tests, he said.

As well as assessing the knowledge and skills of students, Pila can also gauge if they have patience and confidence, which are indicators of a growth mindset, he added.

Kraiyot: 'Growth mindset' is key

Parental voices

Narong Norpan, a father of two children, stressed an urgent need to address education disparity, saying that as long as private and public schools employ different teaching methods and have varying resources, the gap in education standards will remain.

"The wealthy families have the option to enrol their kids in elite schools while the poor don't have choices. The children from poor families may lag despite potential. So the government must invest in education and human development," he said.

Chuenkamol Jiansuwan, the mother of a second-year university student, said many schools focus on rote learning so students can succeed in entrance examinations.

"The competitive environment and varying education standards force students to go to tutorial schools from a young age. If the government can close the gap, I think we can enhance our children's performance," she said.

Mr Kraiyot said a big portion of the funds is allocated to fixed expenses, with less than 10% dedicated to teaching development.

Quoting teachers, he said Pisa test results provide only a partial perspective and education authorities should also figure out ways to inspire students to engage in learning and pursue their interests.

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