By Kaewmala

 

Image source: http://www.skoolbuz.com/content_images/201102/images/admission3.jpg

We’ve heard much lamentation about the sorry state of Thai education and how Thai students perform so poorly compared to those in other countries far and near. Not only that Thai students rank near the bottom in international standardized test scores, they even flunk national standardized tests year after year.

Thai students need to pass the O-NET (Ordinary National Educational Test) to graduate at the primary (P.6), lower secondary (M.3) and upper-secondary (M.6) school levels. O-NET is organized by the National Institute of Educational Testing Service (NIETS). Ever since O-NET has been implemented 6-7 years ago, it has been criticized for many deficiencies, while students have performed extremely poorly on the O-NET tests. Every year, students and parents complain about O-NET and the media report how bad it is. And the next year, the same thing happens all over again.

How bad? Well, let’s look at the O-NET scores from last year among the upper-secondary O-NET for M.6 (Grade 12) students (which are the most important as they are used for university admission). The 2011 average O-NET scores for all 8 subjects tested, save one, were below 50%. The scores in the most important subjects were even worse: under 20% for Math and English and 30.90% for Sciences.

  • Thai language (42.61%)
  • Social science (46.51%)
  • English (19.22%)
  • Mathematics (14.99%)
  • Sciences (30.90%)
  • Health and physical education (62.86%)
  • Arts (32.62%)
  • Vocational education and technology (43.69%)

Still worse news, NIETS Director Mr. Sampan Phanphruek said in early 2011 that the trend showed the scores in the three most important subjects steadily declining over the past three years. For instance, in 2010, the average scores were “better” for English and Math: 23.98% for English and 28.56% for Math. In other words, the trend has been going from very, very bad, to ghastly. Statistical breakdowns of the scores will leave any Thai who cares about Thailand’s future further shaken.

Each year there are roughly 350,000 M.6 students taking the test in each of the 8 O-NET subjects. The table below shows the lowest score group, top score group, the mode (majority) score group, and the actual highest score achieved for each subject. (Maximum score for each subject is 100%.)

Table: Statistical breakdowns of 2011 M.6 O-NET scores

Subject

Bottom score group (N)

Top score group (N)

Majority score group (N)

Highest score (N)

Thai

0-10% (77)

90-100% (2)

30-34% (92,100)

92% (1)

Social Science

0% (21)

80-90% (52)

40-50% (170,252)

87% (1)

English

0% (21)

90-100% (148)

10-20% (206,611)

100% (1)

Math

0% (1,274)

90-100% (1,056)

0-10% (164,372)

100% (92)

Sciences

0% (3)

90-100% (5)

20-30% (183,055)

92% (1)

Health Education

0% (4)

90-100% (5)

60-70% (153,151)

92.5% (5)

Arts

0% (9)

60-70% (64)

30-40% (156,763)

67% (2)

Vocational Education

0% (60)

80-90% (7)

40-50% (114,228)

82% (4)

Source: Kru Nid Guide “คะแนนสูง-ต่ำ’โอเน็ต-GAT-PAT’ คณิต-อังกฤษได้ไม่ถึง20นับแสน,” 24 April 2011, http://mathurosw.blogspot.com/2011/04/gat-pat-20.html

If you think the average scores are bad, look at the majority scores. More than half (over 200K or 59%) of M.6 students who took the O-NET exam got just 10-20% of the right answers in the English subject; nearly half (47%) were in the bottom 10th percentile who got just 0-10% of the Math answers right; and just about half (52%) got 20-30% of the Sciences answers right. Now, there are usually 5 multiple choices in the O-NET questions at the M.6 level. Any guess will give you a 20% chance of getting the right answer. I can imagine how the kids in the “0” group score managed to get a perfect Zero–just fill out your name and fall asleep or day dream until it’s time to go. But to get less than 20% in any subject would take some effort.

Are Thai kids really that stupid?

Some probably are, as it is statistically inevitable. And on the other end of the bell curve there must be some extremely bright ones, as is usually the case. But looking at the misshapen O-NET bell, I suspect something other than Thai kids’ scholastic abilities is involved. Obviously, judging by the number of students that scored perfect “0” more than a few simply gave up on the exam. Quite a few excelled in all subjects except Arts (really, what’s wrong with that subject with the highest score only 67%?). But given the scores of the majority, would it be fair to say that the majority of Thai school kids are stupid as their scores suggest? What do these scores reflect in terms of quality of the Thai education? These questions are worth discussing but for now let’s look at what kind of questions Thai students have to answer in the O-NET exams.

 The question most talked about this year appeared in the Health Education exam which M.6 students took just took on 19 February.

Q2: If you have a sexual urge, what must you do?

a) Call friends to go play football.

b) Talk to your family.

c) Try to sleep.

d) Go out with a friend of the opposite sex.

e) Invite a close friend to see a movie.

Lest you forget this was a question asked to 17- and 18-year-olds. Supposedly, the NIETS Director came out, after much incredulity and mockery expressed by Thai society, and said that “a) Call friends to go play football” was the correct answer. But the former NIETS Director gave an interview, possibly before the current director gave his, and said she believed “b) Talk to your family” was the correct answer. There you go. What is an appropriate response for a hormone-raging 18-year-old Thai when he or she feels a sexual urge? Go out a play football like a good boy (if you are a girl, then pretend to be a boy), or say to mommy “Mommy I feel horny, what should I do?” Or try to sleep? Of all the five choices, 17- and 18-year-olds would more likely choose d), or c), but they’d rather be caught wearing their mother’s mumu before choosing either of the “correct” choices a) or b).

This was a question in Health Education. What exactly was this question testing? Health or sex education? Or sexual morality? If sex education, then choice c) could have been reworded to read “Masturbate and go to sleep,” which would have been a correct and realistic answer for either sex. If sexual morality, well, why was it being tested in Health Education? Even if we allow that it’s relevant, “whose morality” was it being testing? And which NIETS director’s morality would be correct?

Two more questions from the same set in Health Education:

Q1: If you are a couple, what is an appropriate behavior according to the Thai tradition?

a) Walking together hand over each other’s shoulders, shopping.

b) Going out together, eating and seeing movies.

c) Putting head on the others’ lap in public.

d) Going to the beach, staying overnight together.

e) Feed each other in restaurants.

Does anyone know what is the appropriate Thai behavior or tradition for couples? And if there is such a thing, by whose definition is it “appropriate”? Again, what kind of knowledge does this question evaluate?

Q3: What is “transvestic”* behavior? [*previously mistranslated as "homosexual" - /lakka-phet/, a rather old Thai term used is often understood as both transvestism and homosexuality, although /lakka-phet/ has obtained a more clinical definition of "transvestism", while another clinical term /rak-ruam-phet/ refers to "homosexuality" - author, Feb 25]

a) Collect underwear of the opposite sex.

b) Dress in the style of the opposite sex.

c) Love someone of the same sex.

d) Expose one’s genitals.

e) Be a peeping tom peeping on a friend of the opposite sex in the bathroom.

Have teenagers pick a transvestite or a homosexual from a lineup of perverts! A nice way to test knowledge and ensure understanding and respect for diversity in the process? Pardon me, I just can’t help it.

This type of questions is not new. The NIETS was in hot water for exactly this sort of questions two years before, for a similar set of questions in the same subject in 2009. Here it is, with a different gender angle (reported by The Nation).

Nid was a beautiful girl and many boys were after her. She rarely turned them down when asked out on a date. In the end, she had sexual relationship with a friend and showed signs of morning sickness. Worried, Nid consulted her male friend and he told her she should have an abortion. She followed his advice and died of vaginal bleeding.

Q1: Why did many boys like Nid?
a) She was beautiful.
b) She was friendly.
c) She liked going out at night.
d) She did not reject their requests.

Q2: What is the most common danger for girls going out at night?
a) Being robbed.
b) Being drugged.
c) Being raped.
d) Being physically assaulted

Q3: When running into problems, whom should Nid have turned to?
a) A male friend
b) A close friend
c) Homeroom teacher
d) Parents

Q4: What is the best way of dealing with pregnancy while in school?
a) Take maternity leave
b) Undergo abortion because it is impossible to raise a baby at this age
c) Drop out of school to find a job and raise the baby
d) Lodge a complaint with police to force those involved to take responsibility

Q5: What should Nid have done to avoid her tragic end?
a) Preserved her virginity
b) Not engaged in sex because she was not mature enough
c) Paid attention to her studies
d) Not engaged in premarital sex

In response to heavy criticisms for this particular set of “ridiculous and irrational” questions, the then NIETS Director Dr. Uthumporn Jamornmarn (who said the correct answer was “Talk to your family” if having a sexual urge) insisted that all the above questioned were “well designed.” “We checked and rechecked every question. We can explain why we asked this or that.” But hear one of her explanations: “since abortion was not allowed under Thai law, students who knew about this should have been able to choose the right answer…. It took university lecturers and teachers five to six months to come up with these questions.” (Wow! I really want to know who those geniuses were.) The former NIETS Director also said at the time that she was planning to bar people from publicizing O-NET questions in the future without receiving prior permission from NIETS. Well, she did follow up on that. The questions from this year weren’t supposed to have left the exam room. But obviously they were so irresistible. The kids couldn’t stop themselves memorizing (or copying them secretly), and shared with us more ridiculous questions that NIETS must have spent months designing.

Given the kind of questions asked in Health Education, it’s amazing that over 40% of exam takers managed to get as much as 60-70% of the answers correct. One can’t help wondering if Health Education is the subject at which Thai high school students perform best in the O-NET exam, what kind of questions are asked in other subjects which most of them flunk.

Here’s one question in the Sciences subject which was sneaked out from this year’s O-NET.

 

Q4: Locals have found a bizarre item. It is round and soft. If it is not fed water, it shrinks and becomes a hard object. This hard object, when given water, will return to its soft, bigger state. What is it?

a) Naga egg

b) Giant salamander egg

c) Quartz

d) Chaa Khaimuk “Pearl tea” (flour balls in milk tea)

e) Hydrogel

This should be an easy guess, given only two choices sound scientific. But “naga egg”? “Pearl tea”? Who says the NIETS has no sense of humor? I admit, this is my most favorite O-NET question.

I checked on the NIETS website, in search of more sample questions and got a link from there. I looked at sample questions in English subject and could imagine why many Thai students couldn’t pick the right answers. They way many questions was designed, only students with a very good understanding of grammar, high level of fluency and familiarity with colloquial English could answer correctly. Most Thai students with their level of English (judging by their teachers’), must be confused and can’t see the fine difference among the answer choices. I guess even native English speakers may be confused by some of the questions. Let’s see some.

Q: Sak goes to see a doctor. The first thing the doctor says to him is: “…………”

a) Can you tell me everything that’s wrong?

b) So what have you been doing?

c) May I help you?

d) What seems to be the problem?

Q: You are in a taxi in New York City and the taxi driver is driving too fast.
You say : “……….”

a) Step on it, driver.

b) Break the car, driver. [Wonder if the exam writers meant "break" or "brake" the car.]

c) Slow down, driver.

d) Speed less, driver.

Q: Mr. Smith has just been promoted to president of your company. You are
happy for him. When you meet him, you say :”……….”

a) Lucky for you.

b) Congratulations.

c) Fine promotion.

d) Better luck next time.

More sample questions can be seen on this page. (The link to sample Math questions is broken.)

As I am writing this, students and non-students alike are still complaining about the O-NET questions, lamenting and RIP-ing Thai education on various websites and social media. Common complaints are that the O-NET questions are too difficult, ridiculous or too vague. Many say the questions bear little relation to what they have learned in class or even in cram schools. And talking of cram schools, many have also said that their teachers don’t teach everything in class but save the best bits for “tutoring” class after school, for which they have to pay, which of course, poor kids can’t afford.

Surely, the scholastic performance of Thai students can be improved in many areas, but it appears that they aren’t being well taught or well tested. Judging by the questions asked in O-NET, it seems not only the students need to be properly tested. The O-NET exam designers need to also be given some proper exams. First, the very tests which they supposedly spent months writing, checking and agreeing on, as a committee: see what percentage they will get the answers right in each subject.  Second, they need to be tested whether they really know how to write standardized tests. These O-NET tests are churned out year after year showing terrible performance by students. But who is testing the O-NET exam writers? Or the NIETS? Given the kind of questions they ask and the scores of students shown above, it would be fair to ask about their competency, wouldn’t it?

It’s not that the NIETS has no long-term plan to improve the O-NET scores of Thai students. They do apparently. The current NIETS Director reportedly said  that the NIETS recognized students at all levels (primary, lower and upper secondary) do very poorly in key subjects. The top concerns are English and Math. “Schools must step up on improving [??],” he said. He didn’t specify what exactly the schools needed to improve. But as for the NIETS, it does have a clear goal. By 2018, the average O-NET scores of Thai students in 5 key subjects (Thai, Math, English, Sciences, and Social Science) will be above 50%. Should one feel reassured or should one shudder at the prospect of 6 more years of this type of O-NET questions?!

Compared to national tests like O-NET,  Thai students actually perform better in international standardized tests like PISA – The Programme for International Student Assessment used in OECD and many other countries – which is a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-old school pupils’ performance in mathematics, science and reading.

Part 2 of this Thai Education series analyzes in greater detail Thai students’ O-NET scores and the issues of standards and accountability in the national standardized testing.

Part 3 discusses Thai students’ PISA test scores in reading, maths and science and Thailand’s place in terms of education for the 21st century.

……….

Kaewmala is a writer, a blogger and an avid twitterer. She blogs at thaiwomantalks.com and is a provocateur of Thai language, culture and politics @thai_talk. Kaewmala is the author of a book that looks at the linguistic and cultural aspects of Thai sexuality called “Sex Talk”.