Bottom 10

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

We were no longer last or kulelat again in ranking, but the country remained in the bottom 10 in the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in terms of mathematics, science and reading comprehension.

Instead of wringing our hands in despair over the unsurprising results, we can consider areas of improvement that were highlighted in the PISA country reports. The state of Philippine education is a national disaster, and several points raised in the report can provide some focus.

The PISA study, conducted last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), had 690,000 participants representing 29 million 15-year-olds in 81 countries and economies.

In the Philippines, 7,193 students from 188 schools participated, taking two tests each an hour long using multiple choice questions as well as questions requiring students to construct their own answers.

The results tend to track levels of national development, indicating the importance of the competencies tested in competitiveness and progress. The top 10 in math performance were Singapore, Macao, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Estonia, Switzerland, Canada and the Netherlands.

We should be worried that in Southeast Asia, we were seventh in math, reading and science. In math, Vietnam followed Singapore at 31st place. Brunei placed 40th; Malaysia, 53rd; Thailand, 57th, and Indonesia, 69th. The Philippines was at 75th place, ahead only of Cambodia at 80th. Laos and Myanmar did not participate.

In reading comprehension, the top 10 were Singapore, Ireland, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Estonia, Macao, Canada, the United States and New Zealand. In Southeast Asia, Vietnam again came closest to Singapore at 34th place, with Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia ahead of the Philippines and Cambodia.

In science, similar rankings were seen for those in Southeast Asia. The best 10 were Singapore, Japan, Macao, Taiwan, South Korea, Estonia, Hong Kong, Canada, Finland and Australia.

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“The tests explore how well students can solve complex problems, think critically and communicate effectively,” the OECD explained. “This gives insights into how well education systems are preparing students for real life challenges and future success.”

Not very well, in the case of the Philippines – although education systems are not the only ones to blame. Poverty in general affects academic performance, starting from human conception, when undernutrition and malnutrition begin the process of stunting physical growth and brain development. Stunting continues through early childhood – a critical phase in learning.

As explained by the OECD, the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status is computed in such a way that all participating students can be placed on the same socioeconomic scale.

In the Philippines, the OECD noted that the largest share of the participating students, at 36 percent, were in the “bottom international quintile” of that scale, “meaning that they were among the most disadvantaged students who took the PISA test in 2022.”

The top 25 in socioeconomic status among the Filipino participants outperformed the poorer students in math. Between 2018 and 2022, this gap narrowed in the country, the OECD reported. It said that socioeconomic status was a predictor of math performance in all the participating countries and economies. But the results showed 12 percent of disadvantaged Filipino students were able to score in the top quarter in math – higher than the 10 percent OECD average. So there’s hope in math among our students from low-income households.

Other points raised were the possible impact on PISA performance of Filipino students’ sense of belonging at school as well as declining satisfaction with life in 2022 compared to 2018.

There are also comparisons on the learning environment, with the OECD noting that class distractions were less likely when cell phone use is banned on school premises.

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PISA data showed that education performance remained high and students’ sense of belonging improved when students felt safer and less exposed to bullying in school. In the Philippines, the number of boys and girls reporting that they were victims of bullying at least a few times a month were more than double the OECD average. The percentage of students who reported feeling unsafe in their classrooms and other places at school were also higher than the OECD average.

Then there’s the obvious problem of limited funding and resources. The PISA data showed that among countries whose cumulative expenditure per student between ages 6 and 15 was below $75,000 in 2019, higher expenditure on education was associated with higher scores in the PISA math test. In the Philippines, the expenditure per student is about $11,000.

PISA data also noted the shortage of teaching staff in countries such as the Philippines worsening in 2022 from 2018. In most countries and economies, the OECD noted lower scores in math in countries where teacher shortages were reported.

The study showed scores lower than the OECD average among students in schools where principals did not have the main responsibility for hiring teachers, and teachers did not have the main responsibility for selecting the learning materials to use. These responsibilities are entrusted to principals and teachers in many high-performing school systems, the OECD noted.

There are several doables that can be inferred from the OECD data.

The deterioration in the quality of Philippine education has been decades in the making, and reversing the trend can take several decades more. No single person can be blamed.

These days, just getting Filipinos to read anything longer than abbreviated, emoji-accented messages on digital platforms is a challenge.

Not mentioned in the OECD report is the need for proper leadership, to oversee the multisectoral response to this crisis that requires all hands on deck.

To get the support of all sectors, the responses must be insulated from politics. Picking a respected, professional educator as head of the Department of Education can be a good start.

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