When we visit government schools in Thailand, we are often told that many students cannot read the government textbooks or lack basic math skills such as multiplication and division. And we also find that the schools are doing little or nothing to help these struggling students catch up. The prevailing mindset appears to be that if the students fall behind because they cannot read or write or multiply, it is their own fault and nothing need be done. And we also find that the many school staffs have not discussed their schools’ results on the national examinations so they have little idea of where the students are doing well or doing poorly. In fact, several principals told us that they did not share the exam results with teachers because the results would demoralize them.
As a consequence of the widespread failure to identify student needs early in school and take corrective action, almost 60 percent of Thai fifteen year-olds are reading below the proficiency level when they take the PISA literacy assessments. And the recent assessment of 5th graders reading and mathematics skills in six ASEAN countries conducted by SEAMEO, in which Thailand did not participate, found that Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines have similar problems. Yet reading and basic math skills are essential for employment and for economic advancement. They may not be as fashionable to discuss as the 21st Century skills that policymakers love to talk about, but without mastering these basics, students are unlikely to acquire the higher skills.
What should be done to solve this problem? One approach would be to develop diagnostic tests in reading and math that primary teachers could administer at the beginning of the school year to provide them with better information about which students needed help and what kind of help they needed. Thailand has a national testing program, the O-Net, which administers tests in eight subjects, but only in grades 6, 9, and 12. There is no testing in the early grades. And the tests use a multiple choice format that provides little diagnostic information to teachers. So most schools make little use of the O-Net data.
Moreover, the Ministry of Education recently decided to make participation in even these inadequate grade 6 and 9 assessments by schools voluntary. They made this decision because many educators in Thailand are opposed to national testing. The opponents to testing argue that it creates stress for students, that it is too costly, and that it does not help improve instruction. They are right about the O-Net, but wrong about the value testing could have. In the absence of valid and timely test data, teachers cannot tell which students need extra help or what topics or kinds of questions are the most difficult for their students. And principals cannot tell if their schools are improving or not. Thailand doesn’t need less testing; Thailand needs a better testing program.
Diagnostic assessments of students’ skills can be useful at the classroom and school levels. This is especially true in reading and math in the primary years when corrective action can be taken by teachers. But the information needs to be timely and sufficiently detailed to provide the kind of diagnosis teachers can use to alter instruction. The lengthy turn-around time for scoring most standardized tests makes them nearly useless for helping particular students. And, standardized tests usually include only a few questions on any particular topic. This is too little information to produce accurate and detailed results. Many topics in the national standards are not addressed at all in the O-Net exams, so the tests provide no diagnostic information about them.
And, while the tests point to student problems in a general way, they do not tell the teacher what to do about them. So to encourage use of the test information, the Ministry also should provide practice guidelines that tell a teacher, if you see this problem, try this or try that. Research shows that giving teachers access to both diagnostic information and instructional guidance will improve students’ reading comprehension.
This situation calls for major changes in the national testing program. First, diagnostic tests in reading and math are needed for primary teachers to administer and score at the beginning of the each grade, 1-6. And the teachers need time to provide catch up instruction for struggling students and they need curriculum guidelines to tell them what to do about specific problems and instructional materials to do it. Standardized tests administered once a year – “summative assessment” – cannot possibly meet this need.
Moreover, much of what is most valuable about formal education cannot be tested with paper-and-pencil, multiple choice tests of a few hours duration. In high quality schools, students conduct science experiments, solve real-world math problems, write research papers, read novels and stories and analyze them, make oral presentations, evaluate and synthesize information from a variety of fields, and apply their learning to new and ill-defined situations. And their performance is assessed by teachers who observe their work or examinations that ask them to apply what they have learned. Standardized, multi-choice tests offer few opportunities for students to display the attributes of higher-order thinking, such as analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creativity, that policymakers insist are necessary for success in the 21st century,. Higher order thinking is encouraged and revealed by in-depth and extended work, not by one-shot tests. So the critics of tests like the O-Net have an important point to make.
Most of the high-performing European education systems rely on examinations that are aligned to their national curricula and require extended responses by students rather than on standardized tests to ensure schools produce the outcomes that are desired. In examination-based education systems, it is normal that curriculum and teaching are related to exams and aimed at helping students do well on them. In most European countries, for example, secondary school students take subject-matter examinations that are directly linked to a publicly specified curriculum. A crucial feature of these examinations is that students are rarely surprised by them. Both teachers and students know what to expect, indeed teachers draw on past exams as instructional guides. These external examinations turn students and teachers into a “team,” jointly working towards exam preparation. Similar teaching is seen in the U.S., when teachers prepare students for such externally developed exams as the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate. (Resnick and Resnick, 1992).
To encourage teachers and students to work on higher order skills, Thailand needs examinations like these, perhaps at grades 9 and 12. Imagine what would happen if Thai students took examinations that were aligned with the national curriculum in four or five core subjects, but probably not eight. Imagine what would happen in classrooms if Thai teachers were preparing students to sit examinations in their subjects. The Cambridge examinations used in the UK or those used internationally by the International Baccalaureate program provide models for the kind of examinations that are needed. SEAMEO might take the lead in forming a SE Asian Examination Consortium that could develop and administer the examinations. This would provide comparability across the 12 ASEAN nations and make it possible for nations to share successful curricula or teaching strategies. And it would reduce the costs for each nation of developing and scoring the examinations.
But providing better tests would not be sufficient, there also needs to be a cultural change in Thai schools, a shift from blaming the students for the results obtained to a culture that focuses teachers on asking how can we do better? Thai policymakers need to offer educators incentives to improve. I will return to this topic in a future blog.
Thomas B. Corcoran, Senior Advisor to the Director of the SEAMEO STEM-ED