A yearly reminder of utter incompetence

Students sit the annual O-Net exams, which confirm the Thai education system is unable to effectively teach. (File photo by Thanarak Khunton)

Thailand's latest round of national educational assessment, the Ordinary National Educational Test (O-Net), just provided a painful reminder of the country's educational failings, reflecting the incompetence of both the testing system and its authors.

This year's O-Net results, released last month, were as disappointing as ever. Over 380,000 Mathayom 6 (12th grade) students sat the assessments, with the average student failing four of the five exams. The mean scores for mathematics (24%) and English (27%) were shockingly low. Worse, a recent in-depth report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Unesco has strongly criticised the O-Net system and its authors, the National Institute of Educational Testing Service (Niets), for the country's educational shortcomings.

The O-Net system reveals a full picture of failure. The results from 630,000 Mathayom 3 (9th grade) students were even more disappointing than those of the 12th graders, with average scores in all five subjects below 50%. Once again, students fared worse in mathematics and English, with scores averaging 29% and 31%, respectively.

While these results confirm that the Thai education system is unable to effectively educate children, the scores are also indicative of an inadequate, unreliable assessment system.

Entitled "Education in Thailand", the OECD/Unesco report highlights flaws in Thailand's national assessments. It points out that high-quality national assessments should provide essential data to improve education systems, evaluate teaching practices, inform policy makers, help individual learners improve, and ensure accountability to the general public. But Thailand's national assessments fail to provide any of these benefits.

Niets, which was established in 2005, is responsible for developing and administering Thailand's national assessments to over 2 million students each year. Yet it still receives criticism for relying too heavily on multiple-choice questions, as well as for the poor quality of its questions and the lack of sound approaches to testing and measurement.

The report identifies key areas which require urgent action to improve the reliability of the O-Nets and to ensure these assessments can actually contribute to student achievement. It also highlights the need to develop the capacity of Niets, improve the validity of the examinations, and widen the breadth of skills assessed.

The report concludes that Niets does not possess the necessary level of technical expertise for complex procedures such as test design, exam architecture, item calibration, and data analysis.

Niets contracts academics and university lecturers from across Thailand to write questions for the O-Nets. However, these individuals are not required to have experience in test item construction, differentiation and learning evaluation, but are only encouraged to attend a Niets workshop. Alarmingly, according to the report, Niets was completely "unable to provide technical information about the procedures lying behind its formulation and analysis of national assessments".

Another major concern that the report exposed was a lack of evidence that Niets actually collaborates with the authorities which develop Thailand's national curriculum. Educators interviewed for the report expressed the opinion that "Niets officials and officials responsible for the curriculum do not work as closely together as they should".

The gap between these high-stakes tests and the school curriculum has supported the growth of a "shadow education system", as parents search for ways to ensure their children can succeed.

Over the past 20 years, the number of private tutoring schools in Thailand has increased dramatically, and tutoring is now a highly profitable industry. Research indicates that tutoring usually aids student performance and tends to favour wealthier families, perpetuating a two-tier system.

There is critical concern that Thailand's national assessments are not accurately aligned with the country's national curriculum. This means that after 12 years of education, high-school graduates are assessed with an exam that often digresses from what they have actually been studying in school.

The large annual variation in results indicates that the level of difficulty varies from year to year, an outcome which suggests "significant underlying technical gaps" within Niets such as utter incompetence in test design.

These variations and inconsistencies undermine the reliability and validity of the O-Nets and severely limit their ability to be used for their primary purpose -- measuring the effectiveness of the education system and tracking the progress of student learning.

Finally, and perhaps most disturbing of all, is the OECD-Unesco argument that the O-Nets are in fact detrimentally impacting the entire education system.

Niets' standardised assessments' focus on the reproduction of factual knowledge via a multiple-choice format, creating a "backwash" effect on learning, with teachers encouraged to focus on those skills which will help their students score well in these high-stakes exams.

As such, teachers may restrict the kinds of skills that students develop. If students will never be tested on their ability to research and write critical essays, schools may be less inclined to ensure students develop these, and other, more advanced skills.

In Thailand, this appears to be leading to a situation where the tests end up dictating the curriculum, rather than supporting it.

During interviews with teachers, the OECD researchers found evidence that this was indeed the case, and that "preparation for national assessments can become an end in itself, taking up time that could be better spent on other activities".

Other respondents went further, arguing that the "excess of testing" was detrimental both to learning and to learners' attitudes towards education.

Despite the unreliability of Thailand's national assessments, these results continue to be highly influential, with senior researchers and decision makers basing crucial decisions on the data they provide.

Individual students also rely on results from these tests to prove they are prepared to pursue tertiary education. Poor results in the Mathayom 6 O-Net will often limit a student's options for higher education.

Students in Thailand, including at international schools, deserve to be assessed using examinations which are methodically developed and consistently of high quality.

Both Niets and the O-Net should support the improvement of the country's education system. Niets and the Ministry of Education must heed the advice of international education agencies and call on international expertise, specifically the OECD, Unesco and Western examinations boards, to urgently remedy this appalling situation.

Thai students deserve better.


Daniel Maxwell is a writer, educator and education analyst for the Asian Correspondent website. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is a founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University.

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