by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published as “Gap between education standards” in The Star 24 December 2013

The latest PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test results are alarming. Together with the TIMMS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) test, PISA is seen as a global benchmark of how a country’s education system is faring.

Malaysia participates in both PISA and TIMMS. The government has said that they aim to put Malaysia in the top third of the tests. This is a very tall order because we have just been ranked at number 52 out of 65 countries, close to the bottom of the pile.

This result points to a crisis if we put the situation in its proper context. PISA tests students at the age of 15, which means it tests those at our PMR examination age. In the recently announced PMR results, more students than before achieved good results, with around 7 percent obtaining straight As.

But this relatively good PMR results is a clear indication of how bad our education crisis is. How is it possible that when we are getting better relative to our local standards, we are getting worse in global standards like PISA? Something is clearly wrong.

The answer lies in the way our school system operates. PISA tests the ability of students to apply their knowledge. It does not test how much you know, but how able you are to use the knowledge to guide your thinking.

So, PISA tells us that while our students can remember information that are tested in the PMR exams, when it comes to thinking skills, they are below average globally. Our school system produces students who can memorise but not think!

In order to get to the bottom of this education crisis, it is imperative that the Ministry of Education releases the detailed data around the PISA test. Only then we will understand the actual situation.

From among the schools that were selected to take the PISA test, which school tops the list? The newly minted Director General of Education, Datuk Dr Khair Mohamad Yusof, has stated that some of our schools perform just as good as the global best. But we want to know if this school is a private school in a plush area like Kota Damansara, or is it a school in rural Behor Pulai?

We also want to know if there are promising gems in our midst. For example, if a Sekolah Menengah Teknik performed better than the Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan, then surely we must conduct more investigations to identify what has the Sekolah Teknik done right.

Another issue we should know is if there is an urban-rural divide. It is easy to suspect that most of the best 10 schools in our PISA results would be from urban areas. But, if there is relatively equal spread among the bottom 10, then some very interesting studies can and should be conducted.

After all, the recent PMR results showed that urban and rural candidates performed almost equally well with an average grade point of 2.56 and 2.81, respectively. Is this confirmed by PISA?

I also suspect that if the schools are divided according to categories, the private schools including the private Chinese schools, the boarding schools and the Mara Junior Science Colleges would be on the side that achieved better results, while the Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan would be on the other side. Usually autonomy and student streaming produce a positive impact on school performance. But we need to see the data in order to confirm or deny this suspicion.

There is actually one easy way to ensure we perform better when the next round of PISA (and TIMMS) tests are conducted. The cycle for both these tests are quite fixed. Schools and students are usually selected a few months in advance of the actual test. So if we want to perform better in the test, just focus on these 5000 or so selected students, and train them on how to answer the questions.

This step, however, would completely miss the point of taking the PISA or TIMMS test. The test is supposed to help us identify where we are compared to other countries globally. If we take steps that would distort the picture, then what is the point of taking the test at all? Coaching only the selected 5000 may result in an improved performance in PISA, but it would not mean our whole system has improved.

Again, transparency and disclosure is very important here. We must know what the government decides to do in order to push Malaysia up the global ranking. Then only we can decide if the Ministry is making the right choices.

The Ministry of Education must not be territorial or defensive in dealing with this crisis. My message to the powers that be is simple. Please open the doors so that parents and other concerned citizens can help you. You are not alone in this quest. Let all of us help you, but first please tell us all the information.

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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (www.IDEAS.org.my

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