6 June 2024

Thailand’s latest PISA scores are the lowest in more than two decades since the country joined the Program for International Student Assessment in the early 2000s.

The poor performance offers more proof that Thailand is struggling with a weak educational system, outdated curriculum and inefficient use of resources, the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) said.

“The latest PISA scores call for immediate and effective solutions,” the think-tank emphasized.

Downhill battle

Conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), PISA measures 15-year-olds’ ability in reading, mathematics and science. The 2022 assessment covered children from 81 countries including Thailand.

Thai students scored lower than the OECD average in all three subjects, but worse still, the scores were the lowest ever. Thailand lags in all three fields when compared with scores from neighboring countries like Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

In mathematics, Thai students’ average score was 394 – down from 419 in 2018. Also notable is that only 32% of Thai students achieved Level 2 proficiency or above in mathematics, significantly lower than the 69% average across OECD countries. Level 2 is a baseline, reflecting basic knowledge and understanding for application in daily life. The PISA system has six levels of proficiency.

Similarly, in reading, only 35% of students in Thailand attained Level 2 or higher, against the OECD average of 74%. Reading scores among Thai children averaged 379, down from 393 in 2018.

In science, Thai students’ average score stood at 409 – down from 426. Only 47% of students in Thailand attained Level 2 or higher in science – which again is far lower than the OECD average of 76%.

The TDRI said the latest PISA results underscored the fact that Thai children had fallen far behind their peers worldwide in terms of educational competencies.

Reasons for poor performance

TDRI said the COVID-19 pandemic may have been one factor behind Thai students’ poor performance, but emphasized that it was by no means the key one.

Asst Prof Athapol Anunthavorasakul, of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Education, agreed with that assessment. He said that though the COVID-19 outbreak was disruptive, if the Education Ministry had implemented efficient measures, children’s schooling would have recovered and resulted in a better PISA performance.

The academic added that Thailand’s latest PISA scores had sunk to levels that had caused shock in the country.

“But I believe this shock will be forgotten in a few weeks and we will be shocked all over again when the results of the next PISA come out,” he said sarcastically.

He warned that Thailand should not get used to low PISA scores achieved by Thai children.

“Relevant parties need to work on reversing the trend,” he insisted.

Thai authorities should begin by changing the way classes are conducted and scrapping the system of rote learning or cramming students with information to remember, he added.

“In math, for instance, the focus should be on thinking and solving problems. For reading, the focus should be comprehension, interpretation and synthesis.”

Solutions

Athapol said the Education Ministry should embrace a competency-based curriculum that gives students the ability to apply the knowledge they are learning to daily life.

“If we stick with the curriculum that was introduced in 2007, the teachers will not be able to change their teaching methods because there are so many topics they must cover in class, and students have so many projects to complete,” he said.

The curriculum should also be revamped to transform teachers into learning managers, he added. In other words, teachers should raise good questions to spur creative thinking and also encourage students’ problem-solving skills via research projects that are relevant to daily life.

Athapol also opposes the Education Ministry’s longstanding approach to PISA training for teachers and students.

“By now, we should have realized that such training will not improve Thai children’s PISA performance because it does not address the structural problems [in Thai education],” he said.

He said it was high time that the Education Ministry introduced fresh solutions or methods to improve the education system.

Holding a mirror up to educational problems

Athapol said the latest PISA scores show that Thailand’s educational problems are longstanding and getting worse. The learning gap between children from wealthy families and those from low-income families has also widened.

“You can see that students from science, demonstration and prestigious schools are still doing well,” he said. “Their performance is far better than that of students from small schools overall.”

About 1% of Thai students scored high enough in mathematics and science to reach the top levels of 5 or 6 in PISA tests. All Thai students among this small percentage attend top schools.

“At small schools, teachers already have their hands full as they also need to handle various tasks outside class,” Athapol said. “At some schools, one teacher may need to teach more than one subject, and not always in the field they may have received their bachelor’s degree in.”

A post on the Krukorsorn Facebook page, which addresses the problem of teachers having to work outside class, says that 95% of teachers in Thailand work more than eight hours a day and about 58% devote more than six hours a week to work that is not related to teaching.

A 2014 survey by the Quality Learning Foundation showed that of the 200 working days a year, teachers typically spent 84 on non-teaching tasks. They typically needed to spend 31 days evaluating their performance and educational quality, 29 days on academic tests, 12 days on preparing projects and evaluations, 10 days on training, and many more on administrative tasks.

Several social media pages carry teachers’ complaints about how they are responsible for practically everything at small schools. They stand on duty at school gates, help manage school cooperatives, and some even prepare lunch for their students. Many even complain of sometimes having to dip into their own pockets to buy teaching materials.

“I’m not surprised that the latest PISA scores turned out the way they did. In this environment, it is tough enough to ensure students can read,” said Teerawee Suphapichayapoing, a Thai-language teacher at a state school in Bangkok.

Phurinatee Kulthongkate, who teaches science at a state school, said his school did not even bother to release the latest PISA scores because it was more worried about the GAT (General Aptitude Test) and PAT (Professional Aptitude Test), whose scores count for university admission.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk