First ever surveys confirm below average quality of education

The quality of Bhutan’s education and also the related issue of the inability of educated youth to go beyond government jobs has been two much discussed issues.

Two domestic assessments showed that not only is the quality of education in Bhutan  below par, but that our students lack adequate application, analysis, creative and problem solving skills.

Both studies were done loosely based on the international Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and PISA-D (Developing countries) format conducted by the Bhutan Council for School Examinations and Assessment (BCSEA).

PISA is seen as the ultimate international test to check the quality of the education and learning in three subjects of English, Math and Science focusing much more on the analysis, application, and creativity of the students as opposed to rote learning.

The pre-tests were done as Bhutan is preparing for a PISA-D trial test in November 2017 for the whole country followed by registering for PISA in 2018 and then doing a complete PISA test in 2021. PISA-D is the test for developing countries which will be done away after 2017 to have an expanded PISA test available for any category of country by 2021. PISA test is done once every three years and the country’s education system has to prepare to be ready for the test.

Education Minister Lyonpo Norbu Wangchuk said that most developing countries out of fear of criticism shy away from the PISA test as it reveals weaknesses about the national education systems.

Lyonpo said, “However, we cannot let politics dictate our education reform as we have to take stock and make our education system integrated with the global playing field so that our youth can compete with the rest of the world while keeping in touch with our rich heritage.”

The minister that the result of the two pre-PISA-D assessments loosely based on the PISA format was a matter of concern.

The BCSEA Secretary Tenzin Dorji and his national project team for PISA-D within BCSEA said that the overall results were not up to the expectations.

There were two PISA-D pre tests done with the first more comprehensive one done for Thimphu’s 10 Thromde and 3 Dzongkhag schools covering around 3,694 students in classes nine and ten. The second test was for all 20 Dzongkhags.

The Thimphu PISA-D pre test took released questions from past PISA test papers. It has a scale of 6 proficiency levels from one to six. The PISA questions tested the Thimphu students on reading literacy, scientific literacy and mathematical literacy. The questions do not just test the syllabus knowledge but is more focused on testing the application, analysis and problem solving ability of the student.

The Thimphu students who are generally considered to represent the cream of Bhutan on an average scored 31.41 in reading literacy, 41.78 in scientific literacy and 28.84 in mathematical literacy out of 100 marks each.

When translated into the PISA proficiency level it was below level 1 for reading and mathematical literacy and a rounded of level 2 for scientific literacy.

To put it into context the 2015 topper for PISA which is Singapore scored level five in scientific  and mathematical literacy and level four in reading literacy. The average of the more developed OECD countries for PISA is an average of level three.

The BCSEA, however, also clarified that the Thimphu test by no way can be seen to be a complete PISA test as the BCSEA had to rely on past released questions and the total number of questions per paper was not known.

The Thimphu test given its more detailed natured threw up the established international trend of girls being better in reading literacy and boys being better in mathematical literacy while both were almost equal on science. The Thromde schools also did better than the Dzongkhag schools.

The PISA test internationally is normally conducted for 15 year old but BCSEA did it for three groups of below 15, 15 and above 15. Surprisingly in the overall scoring the below 15 did the best followed by the 15 and then finally the above 15 category. A project team member opined that this may have to do with the fact that well off parents usually push their children in at a younger age for admission and so the age may reflect the socio-economic status and support that the younger ones get outside school.

The BCSEA’s national project team then conducted a PISA-D pre test survey for 20 Dzongkhags for 13,624 class nine students in 87 schools. Here BCSEA made it clear that the questions were made by BCSEA in an attempt to be like PISA-D questions but are not actual PISA-D questions.

Here the scores for the national results dropped sharply compared to the Thimphu schools.

Out of 9,240 students administered for scientific literacy the majority achieved below PISA-D proficiency level 1. Trongsa Dzongkhag outperformed other Dzongkhags followed by Bumthang Dzongkhag.

In the reading literacy majority of the 9,243 students achieved below PISA-D proficiency level 1.

Even in mathematical literacy majority of the 8,980 students achieved below PISA-D proficiency level 1.

The BCSEA secretary who also leads the national project team for PISA-D said that if one talked about the quality of education in terms of the normal syllabus and the routine learning then BCSEA exams would be an indicator.

He said that PISA-D and PISA is important as it tests the problem solving and other abilities of the students that matter in a global context. He said the students must have ability to use their knowledge giving the example that students may know all the theories but may not be able to change a light bulb. He said that such creative and adaptive skills that force students to think is now required on the global stage.

The secretary also said that beyond class rooms such skills would encourage students to be entrepreneurs, scientists, job creators etc instead of just hoping for government jobs.

The secretary said that PISA-D would be a spring board for many more positive changes as schools, teachers and students would start gearing and preparing for it. He pointed out that the BCSEA already had competency based assessment from class three to six where out of 100 marks around 50 are not the usual rote learning questions but competency based. Similar in classes 10 to 12 around 25 percent of the marks come under this category.

Meanwhile the Education Minister said the whole approach to education should now be not just acquiring knowledge, but on other critical skills like application, analysis, creativity etc and so the curriculum needs to be changed along with the way the teachers teach and conduct assessments.

Lyonpo said that the government was looking forward to the November 2017 preliminary PISA-D tests results followed by in between preparation and the PISA test in 2021.

Prior to the current PISA-D test preparation the Education Ministry in the past carried out a National Education Assessment for English and Mathematics in 2006 followed by another one in 2013-14.

The 2006 assessment led to 34.87 in English and 38.97 in math out of 100.

The latter and same survey in 2013 gave 34.72 in english and 38.03 in math showing virtually no improvement. It also showed the less than ideal quality of education even based on Bhutan’s own education system.

In the meantime there was some concern on Dzongkha but the assessment done in 2015-16 actually showed Dzongkha doing comparatively better at 48.62 out of 100.

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