Triple woes for Malaysia in the 2012 PISA international student assessment for mathematics, science and reading

If only Malaysia had made slight progress in all the three subjects of mathematics, science and reading in the 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) as compared to the previous PISA test in 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin would have highlighted the issue in his speech when opening the annual general meetings of Umno Youth, Wanita and Puteri on Tuesday night (the PISA results were released earlier the same day) as evidence that Malaysia was progressing towards a world-class education system under his leadership.

But the 2012 PISA results were more grounds for despondency rather than celebration, and this is why Muhyiddin was conspicuously silent about the PISA results – unlike his Singapore counterpart, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat who said on the same day the PISA results were released that he was “very happy that Singapore’s 15-year-olds had done “very, very well” in 2012 PISA, as the Singapore students ranked second in mathematics and third in science and reading in the global assessment taken by about 510,000 15-year-old students in 65 countries and regions.

The Thai Education Minister, Chaturon Chaisang was upbeat with the results of the Thai students scoring 441 in reading, 427 in mathematics and 444 in science (beating Malaysia in all three subjects), saying that the Thai ranking demonstrated the country’s potential and could attract investment.

Malaysia has more than enough reasons to rue the 2012 PISA, as the country has proclaimed that it aspired to be in the top third of the countries in the world in terms of performance in international assessments, as measured by outcomes in the PISA or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) by 2021.

In fact, Muhyiddin had even said before the publication of the Preliminary Repport of the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2015 last October that Malaysian youngsters are receiving better education than children in the United States, Britain and Germany.

Muhyiddin’s claim is not only not borne out by the latest TIMSS and PISA reports, but the latest 2012 PISA represents triple woes for Malaysia’s 15-year-olds and our education system, viz:

Malaysia seems to be stuck in the bottom third of the countries surveyed in international assessments, and not making any upward move towards the upper tier of the top third of the countries.

This is illustrated by the worsening of Malaysia’s results in the 2012 PISA as compared to the previous 2010 PISA, viz:

Maths Maths Science Science Reading Reading
2010 2012 2010 2012 2010 2012
Score 404 421 422 420 414 398
Rank 57 52 52 53 55 59

Although at the bottom third of the pile, Malaysia is being overtaken by other countries in the group, like Kazakhstan whose mathematics score have widened from one point difference in Kazakhstan’s favour (2010: Kazakhstan 405; Malaysia 404) to 11 points (2012: Kazakhstan 432; Malaysia 421) and well as turning the table and overtaking Malaysia in science from 400 for Kazakhstan in 2009 PISA as against 422 for Malaysia to 425 for Kazakhstan in 2012 PISA as against 420 for Malaysia.

Another example is Thailand which beats Malaysia, widening the lead in all three subjects:

(2012 PISA)

Maths Science Reading
Thailand 427 444 441
Malaysia 421 420 398

But the most disconcerting result from the 2012 PISA is the widening gap between Malaysia and the “top performers”.

The Malaysian Education Blueprint states:

“Over the past two decades, international student assessments, such as the Programme for international Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), have emerged as a means of directly comparing the quality of educational outcomes across different systems. These assess a variety of cognitive skills such as application and reasoning…

“The results from PISA 2009+ (the first time Malaysia participated in this assessment) were also discouraging, with Malaysia ranking in the bottom third of 74 participating countries, below the international and OECD average.

“Almost 60% of the 15-year-old Malaysian students who participated in PISA failed to meet the minimum proficiency level in Mathematics, while 44% and 43% did not meet the minimum proficiency levels in Reading and Science respectively.

“A difference of 38 points on the PISA scale is equivalent to one year of schooling.

“A comparison of scores shows that 15-year-olds in Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Shanghai are performing as though they have had 3 or more years of schooling than 15-year-olds in Malaysia.”

The disparity in the scores between 15-year-olds in Malaysia and the 15-year-olds in Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Shanghai have widened since the previous PISA.

Based on the difference of 38 points on the PISA scale being equivalent to one year of schooling, the disparity has widened to reach a stage where the 15-year-old in Shanghai, Singapore and South Korea are performing as though they had four or even five more years of schooling than 15-year-olds in Malaysia.

This is illustrated by the following chart:

2012 PISA score (bracket : difference in years of schooling)

Reading Maths Science
Shanghai 570 (4.5) 613 (5) 580 (4.2)
Singapore 542 (3.8) 573 (4) 551 (3.5)
S. Korea 536 (3.6) 554 (3.5) 538 (3.1)
Hong Kong 545 (3.9) 561 (3.7) 555 (3.6)
Malaysia 398 421 420

As Education Minister, Muhyiddin cannot remain silent but must explain how he proposes to overcome and resolve the triple woes for the Malaysian education as highlighted by the 2013 PISA results.

Lim Kit Siang DAP Parliamentary Leader & MP for Gelang Patah