Thursday 5 December 2013

Singapore students shine in PISA 2012 test

By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 4 Dec 2013

SINGAPORE'S 15-year-olds are again near the top of the class in a global ranking that measures how well students use mathematics, science and reading to solve real- world problems.

Local teens came in second in mathematics and third in science and reading in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) carried out last year.

The 2009 PISA ranked students here second in maths, fourth in science and fifth in reading.

The most recent PISA test also showed that Singapore has made progress in lifting academically weaker students, while sustaining the performance of academically stronger ones. There were less than 10 per cent of low performers in each of the subjects.

Shanghai, which like Singapore was taking part in the PISA study for the second time, topped all three categories.

Asian territories, including Hong Kong and Japan, hogged the top five spots in the study, which is held every three years. Finland was the exception, coming in fifth in reading and sixth in science.

PISA is run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group for major economies. The test, conducted in the native language of students, assesses 15-year-olds near the end of their secondary education.

In Singapore, 5,369 randomly selected students, mainly in Secondary 3 and 4, from all 166 public schools and 177 students from six private schools, including international ones, sat the paper-based test.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) said the strong performance shows that most of the students are adept at applying their knowledge and skills in novel ways.

In fact, the students here came in tops among the 32 education systems that opted to participate in a separate computer-based assessment of mathematics and reading. The results also underlined how the students excelled at applying their knowledge as opposed to mere rote learning.

"They were able to... deal with ambiguous information, explore indirect relationships and work with less structured real-world data and representations," MOE said in a statement.

School teachers and education specialists said the study endorses the curriculum's focus on training students to understand, evaluate and apply knowledge.

Mr Cedric Leong, senior head for English language and literature at MOE, said what PISA assesses is "very much in line with what we are also emphasising".

Detractors criticise PISA's narrow focus, which ranks school systems on a very limited number of measures.

They also ask if it makes sense to compare countries like Finland and Vietnam.

MOE deputy director-general of education Low Khah Gek said it is mindful that the study does not capture important factors like emotional intelligence and social skills, which should be inculcated.

PISA score signals Singapore 'is on right path'
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 5 Dec 2013

SINGAPORE'S performance in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that its education policy is "moving in the right direction", Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said in a Facebook posting yesterday.

Singapore's students came in second in mathematics and third in science and reading in the 2012 PISA test conducted by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

A total of 65 education systems around the world were tested. Held once every three years, PISA assesses 15-year-old students near the end of their secondary education.

Mr Heng said PISA tests a student's critical thinking and, to do well, "a student can't get by with just memorisation; he must have real knowledge and the wits to apply that knowledge to unpredictable real-life problems".

"This is exactly what we want our students to learn in school - the real skills to think critically and creatively so they can succeed in the 21st century," he added.

Mr Heng said what was more important was that Singapore's students have shown improvement in their PISA scores.

"Regardless of how they rank relative to students from elsewhere, our students' own scores are better this time than when we first took part in PISA in 2009," he said.

In the 2009 test, Singapore was ranked second in maths, fourth in science and fifth in reading.

The improvement showed that the Education Ministry's teaching strategies to expose students to real-life problems, and to apply what they have learnt to the world outside the classroom, have worked, Mr Heng said.

"A point of pride for me", he added, was Singapore's better performance in the low performers category.

The proportion of Singapore students who were considered low performers in the PISA test had decreased in maths, science and reading. For example, 12.5 per cent of the participating students were deemed low performers in the 2009 reading test. For the 2012 test, only 9.9 per cent of students were placed in that category.

Mr Tan Soon Meng, 50, a father of two teenage girls who are both studying in the Singapore Chinese Girls' School, said he has noticed that teachers are exposing students to more applied learning. This has equipped his children with knowledge that is applicable in the real world, he said.

The corporate trainer cited an example of a science project that his younger 13-year-old daughter took part in.

"My daughter was able to make a bridge that could sustain a certain weight load using ice- cream sticks," he said.

Students know their stuff and how to apply it
Scenario-based curricula helped them ace global test: Experts
By Amelia Teng, The Straits Times, 4 Dec 2013

BEDOK South Secondary student Dickson Tan had never encountered such “innovative” questions before, but he had no problems tackling them.

The 17-year-old Normal (Academic) student who took part in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) last year said most questions were “very easy”.

“It was about applying concepts I learnt in school, and some of them were covered already in lower secondary.”

Dickson was among the 5,546 Singapore students, mainly from Secondary 3 and 4, who took the test administered by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and were ranked among the top performers.

Singapore was second in mathematics and third in science and reading. Shanghai was first in all three categories.

Conducted once every three years, PISA is designed to test the ability of 15-year-olds in applying skills and knowledge in mathematics, science and reading to real-life problems.

Education experts said the continued strong performance of Singapore students in the study is indicative of what the schools are doing right.

PISA tests the very skills that the local curriculum teaches, said officials from the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Mr Soh Cheow Kian, assistant director for mathematics at MOE, said application has been integral in the teaching and learning of maths: “We have also encouraged our teachers to make use of more authentic resources, such as newspapers, magazine articles, to make learning more interesting.”

Ms Gayatri Balakrishnan, a senior curriculum specialist for mathematics at MOE, said students understand better when they see the relevance of what they learn in the real world. For instance, students learn about percentages through real-world concepts like taxes and discounts, said the former maths department head at a secondary school.

Other pedagogy experts like Dr Yeap Ban Har, 45, agreed, noting that national exams now have more “unusual”, scenario-based maths questions.

Instead of using a picture of a cone to ask students to calculate its surface area, a question in today’s exams could use a picture of the roof of a house shaped like a cone, to provide a real-world context, said the maths researcher, who is the principal of Marshall Cavendish Institute, which carries out teacher training.

The teaching of English has also undergone changes. The revised syllabus in 2010 focuses more on enabling students to make connections between what they read in different texts, said Mr Cedric Leong, senior head for English language and literature at MOE.

For science, the syllabus has since 2001 moved from remembering facts to inquiry-based learning.

Said Dr Yeap: “Our students are not trained to answer PISA type of questions. So our teachers should be proud of them, that they could connect what they learnt to new scenarios.”

PISA ‘not just about what you know’
CAN schools train students to ace PISA test?
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 4 Dec 2013

Some think so, attributing the stellar performance of East Asian nations to their examination-focused school systems which prepare students well for taking tests.

Mr Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on education to OECD, however, told The Straits Times that it is difficult to prepare for the PISA test:

“It is actually hard to prepare for PISA, again, because PISA does not just test whether students can reproduce what they have learned, but whether they can extrapolate from what they know and use and apply their knowledge in novel situations.

“Sometimes PISA is criticised for that. People say that PISA is unfair, because it tests students on tasks they have not been exposed to in school. But if you follow that line, you should consider life unfair because the knowledge economy no longer pays people for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know.

“Never underestimate the difference this makes. So PISA is less about subject matter content and more about ways of thinking – involving creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making.”

The PISA test

THE Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international survey that aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students.

It is done once every three years.

The latest results, from PISA 2012, were released yesterday at 6pm (Singapore time) worldwide.

Around 510,000 students in 65 economies took part in PISA 2012, representing about 28 million 15-year-olds globally..

Students are randomly selected for the tests and each assessment year will focus on one of three key subjects: reading, mathematics or science.

In PISA 2012, the focus was on mathematics.

The test, conducted in the native language of students, lasts two hours. Students tackle a mix of open-ended and multiple-choice questions that are organised in groups, based on a passage setting out a real-life situation.

The students and their school principals also answer questionnaires to provide information on the students’ backgrounds, schools attended and learning experiences as well as the broader school system and learning environment.

The PISA test is seen to be of value because the tests are not directly linked to the school curriculum.

They are designed to assess to what the extent to which students at the end of compulsory education can apply their knowledge to real-life situations.

The information collected through background questionnaires also provides a context, which can help analysts interpret the results.

As PISA is done every three years, countries can compare their students’ performance over time and assess the impact of education policy decisions.

Scaling education heights in PISA
Singapore's strong performance in the international benchmarking test validates recent shifts in teaching.
By Sandra Davie, The Straits Times, 5 Dec 2013

NEWS that Singapore students emerged among the top in an international test called Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was met with little fanfare.

After all, the Republic routinely tops such educational assessments, including TIMSS and PIRLS, which stand for Trends in International Maths and Science Study and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.

But the PISA test is different, and Singapore's achievement is a big deal.

In Britain, the media described PISA, the international benchmarking test in mathematics, science and reading, as the "World Cup for education".

In America, Tuesday was declared "PISA Day" to mark the day PISA results were released. This is despite American students' dismal performance, lagging far behind their 15-year-old peers from top-performing places like Singapore.

All over the world, from the United States to Europe and Australia, educators and policymakers held conferences and "webinars" to pore over the latest findings of the study and draw comparisons across countries.

How did Singapore fare in PISA for tests taken last year, results of which were released this week?

The short answer is that it did very well, and improved on its showing from the last time in 2009, when it already emerged in the top five. The 2009 PISA ranked Singapore students fourth in science and fifth in reading.

For 2012, this improved to second in mathematics and third in science and reading.

Shanghai topped all three categories. Hong Kong was third for maths and pipped Singapore to second place in science and reading.

PISA is conducted by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The three-yearly exercise produces international education rankings for more than 60 countries and dozens of regional administrations. This ranking is based on tests in reading, maths and science taken by more than 500,000 15-year-olds.

The questions don't just test students on their mastery of mathematics, science and reading but also if they are able to apply their knowledge and skills in the subjects to solve problems.

Students and school heads also fill in questionnaires on the students' family background and the way their schools are run.

Some countries also choose to have parents fill in a questionnaire.

The results of PISA 2012 showed that school systems in East Asia - Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong - remained world-beaters, while Western countries such as the US, Britain and France, remain stuck in the "must do better" category.

On the right track?

TO BE sure, Singapore educators, parents and students can all be cheered by Singapore's excellent showing.

As Education Minister Heng Swee Keat noted in his Facebook posting yesterday, the results show that Singapore schools are on the right track in focusing on getting students to think critically. The improved scores validate Singapore schools' new teaching strategies to expose students to real-life issues, and to challenge them to apply what they learn to real-world problems.

Mr Heng was especially proud that weaker students did better this year, so the improvement was across the board. There were less than 10 per cent of low-performers in each of the subjects.

But even as top-performing countries including Singapore celebrate their good showing, PISA detractors were at full force poking holes at the tests - from the statistical methodology to the cultural biases in the two-hour test that students sit.

They asked: Can average scores from written tests adequately assess the quality of school systems across the world? Does it make sense to compare the performance of Finland to Vietnam?

Some also question the validity of a test where questions are translated into different languages. Others point out that "literacy" means different things in languages like Finnish - where words are consistently written as they are spoken - from literacy in English.

Some critics say the stellar performance of Asian countries including Singapore is due to the exam-focus of schools which train students to take tests well.

But as Mr Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on education to OECD, noted, it is difficult to prepare for the PISA test as it does not just test whether students can reproduce what they have learnt, but also whether they can extrapolate from what they know and use and apply their knowledge in novel situations.

Ironically, this too has come under attack from detractors who say the PISA test is unfair as it tests students on tasks they have not been exposed to in school. But as Mr Schleicher said: "If you follow that line, you should consider life unfair because the knowledge economy no longer pays people for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know."

Those who dismiss PISA as just another ranking table, should realise that the idea behind PISA is to show what is possible in education systems, by highlighting the learning outcomes that can be achieved in terms of equity in giving opportunities to all students and in terms of value for money.

Policymakers and educators look out for the broad policy conclusions that every PISA study presents, not its rankings.

What works better?

FOR example, PISA studies worldwide have found that private education is no better than public education, in countries like Britain which have both.

They also found that the most successful countries pay great attention to how they select and train teachers. When it comes to allocating budgets, successful countries prioritise the quality of teachers over classroom size.

In high-performing countries, students consistently say that their achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence. This suggests that schools and families can play a part in nurturing the right values and attributes in children to foster educational success.

Singapore came to PISA late. It took part in the study in 2009, nine years after the launch of the first PISA study. Still, the data of Singapore students' performance in just the 2009 and 2012 tests have thrown up some interesting findings.

First is the conclusion that poor children here can perform as well as those who are better off.

The test measured the socioeconomic background of students based on information they gave, such as their parents' educational level and occupation, family structure and their home possessions - such as whether they had a room of their own, and Internet connection. This was compared to their scores.

The study found that better-off students worldwide do better academically. But in some countries like Singapore, China, South Korea and Finland, a larger proportion from lower socioeconomic backgrounds perform better than expected.

The study calls them "resilient" students. These are children from the bottom quarter in terms of socioeconomic background in their country, but performing in the top quarter across students from all countries. This is after taking into account their predicted scores based on their socioeconomic background.

In PISA 2009, almost one in two poor students in Singapore was "resilient".

This compared to one in three in the 34 OECD member countries and the PISA average of one in four among 65 countries.

Singapore was ranked fifth out of 65 countries for its proportion of resilient students.

Another worthwhile finding from PISA is on the impact of quality pre-school on later academic achievement. The 2009 data showed that Singapore students who reported they had attended pre-school for more than one year, did better than those who had not attended pre-school.

PISA 2009 data also shed light on private tuition. Singapore was first among 18 countries when it came to the proportion of students who had private tuition - 43 per cent of students who were tested said they had one-on-one tuition while in primary school. But they did not do any better than those with no tuition in the PISA test.

A work in progress

TEST designers announced earlier this year that those sitting the 2015 test will be asked to solve problems by collaborating with a partner, in this case, a software program. Students will have to use their interpersonal and communication skills to engage the program and pool knowledge and skills to complete a task.

This collaborative problem-solving test was added to mirror the needs of the real world where problem-solving is done by global teams via computers.

Even as PISA refines its testing method, Singapore educators are mindful that no test can gauge traits like emotional intelligence or values.

In the end, PISA 2012 suggests Singapore's education system is on the right track when it comes to training the cognitive and reasoning skills of students. PISA 2015 may even show if Singapore does well to prepare students for collaborative tasks.

But the true test of an education system lies years ahead, in the quality of adults who leave school, enter the workforce, and build a life.

PISA may be a great diagnostic tool for 15-year-olds' reasoning skills. But real life remains the best and final arbiter.

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