By Andrew Biggs
The nation’s Year 12 examination results are out. In short … the nation failed. Again.
This column is not going to be a damning condemnation of the Thai education system (as opposed to a non-damning condemnation, Andrew? Be careful. You’re about to be critical. You wouldn’t want to kick things off in tautological territory, wouldn’t you?).
First of all, things aren’t all bad in Thai education. Actually there are positive things happening, such as teacher-training programs, a new national App, and an attempt by the prime minister at restructuring the administration of the plodding dinosaur we call the Ministry of Education. If ever there have been times of change, they are now.
If ever there has been an acute necessity for change, it is now as well, as evidenced by test results that came out this week.
Thai final-year school students must do three big exams. They are called GAT, O-Net and 9 Wicha Saman or Nine Subjects. The National Institute of Educational Testing Service, or NIETS, administers all three of these tests. The exams perform different functions, but they boil down to university admission and how well a school fares compared to others. O-Net caters to the latter category.
My little Thai niece has done all three. At 18 years of age she is no longer that little; she is very academic and last year spent a year in Italy on an AFS exchange student program, thus making her fluent in Italian, English and Thai. She just finished Matthayom 6, or Year 12, and when I saw her last week she was looking very glum.
“I have some bad news to tell you,” she said. “I got a terrible grade for English on O-Net. I’m so mad at myself … and NIETS!”
The NIETS part I understand; what student wouldn’t dislike the government arm that sets tests? Further questioning revealed her bad grade was 69 per cent, which to me isn’t such a “terrible grade”, but it did strike me as odd that someone so academic and fluent would not at least hit the late 70s.
My niece was one of 422,625 Year 12 Thai students who sat O-Net. The test covers the five core subjects of Thai, English, Science, Mathematics, and a fifth entitled “Social Studies, Religion and Culture.” There used to be eight subjects but it was reduced to five to lessen the study load.
NIETS announced the results for O-Net last Monday, and the results weren’t good. We’re not talking about my niece; we’re talking the whole country.
The Thai language subject, always the one that garners the highest average, received an average score of 49.36 per cent. The average grade for Social Studies Et Al was 39.70 per cent, while Science was worse at 33.40 per cent.
We are saving the very worst for last.
The average score for Mathematics for those 400,000-plus students was 26.59 per cent. The greatest revelation of all — for anybody who has spent the last few years under a mushroom — is that English was right at the bottom. The average score was 24.98 per cent; my niece is positively Mensa.
It is said that statistically a monkey can score 25 per cent on a four-choice multiple-choice exam, which worried me intensely until my niece explained there were five choices this year, not four. The monkey’s score must therefore drop to 20 per cent, which means Thai students as a whole beat the monkey … thank god.
The O-Net statistics were revealing in other ways. The highest score in the country for English by a single student was 99, meaning the test was doable; either that or one question was unanswerable.
On the other hand at least one poor soul scored 0.00 on the English test. He didn’t even fluke a single point? Somewhere there is a monkey celebrating that news.
More worrisome is Social Science; the highest score in Thailand by a single student was a meager 81.00; put another way, one in every five questions on that test was unanswerable.
These results are not a good direction for the country’s education to be heading. At least when the Nine Subjects results came out early this year, students passed one in five of the subjects. That subject was Thai, barely scraping past 50 per cent.
Such dismal results are the result of what? There can only be one of two conclusions drawn:
1. Thai students are stupid. Or:
2. The system needs to be upgraded and overhauled, not just the examination system, but instruction. Currently there are no specific guidelines as to what is going to come up on these national tests. The average Thai teacher has the unenviable task of shoving knowledge into their students, after which they must rush to the school’s spirit houses, light joss sticks and pray that this knowledge will come up in the national exams. On top of this there is the ongoing love affair Thais have with rote learning at the expense of other learning methods. Plus these national tests need an extra level of quality control placed on them in order to flush out the ambiguous or unanswerable questions found in subjects like English and, apparently more so, Social Science.
I certainly know which choice I am heading towards.
I don’t envy the role of NIETS. Writing exams is stressful, difficult and one cannot please all the people all the time. Test papers are scrutinized and pored over for errors. And so they should be; ambiguity leads to low grades. Take a look at the very first question in the English GAT test from not so long ago:
Having read the question and the choices, I ask you, dear reader: Which one is correct? Here’s my take:
Choice 1: Correct.
B is A’s best friend. She gladly points to her pencil, which happens to be on the desk.
Choice 2: Correct.
B has never liked A; A smells, and belongs to a lower social class. Nevertheless B is forced to sit next to A, who continually bugs her for things to borrow and invariably doesn’t return them. But she cannot turn her down; it would be uncharitable. Upon A asking to borrow her pencil, B rolls her eyes, emits a long sigh and an exasperated, droll “Really”, all the while pointing to the pencil on the desk.
Choice 3: Correct.
A’s English is terrible, and B is constantly correcting her. When will A ever get to a level as good as B’s? Today, however, A uses correct sentence structure in asking her question — though technically, “May” would have been better than the “Can” since A is requesting permission rather than asking about ability. But B is not one to split hairs. She congratulates her friend by saying “Well done” with a smile then moves to the subject of the pencil.
Choice 4: Correct.
See explanation for Choice 2.
Perfection may not be always accomplished, but it is imperative that we always strive for it. I don’t think I could write a perfect test, but I sure could contribute to one.
How easy it is to criticize and not do anything. I have never contacted NIETS to offer my services — primarily because I would fear writing bad questions such as the one above — but perhaps I needed to put my money where my mouth was.
With this in mind, I went to the NIETS website and was heartened to read, on their excellent English home page, news that “test writers are urgently needed.”
Here was my chance to give something back to Thai society. I clicked on the link.
A 404 came up. “Page Not found. Back to NIETS home?”
Sigh. Not today.