DAP calls for genuine educational transformation to ensure “educational excellence for all students” and not just for 1.3% of the student population with over 51% failures

Both the current Education Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and his predecessor Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein must be held responsible for the decline and deterioration of educational standards in Malaysia in the past decade, as illustrated by the 2007 and 2011 TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and the 2009 and 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment).

This is because Hishammuddin was Education Minister from 2004 – 2009, and must be held solidly responsible for Malaysia's poor performance in the 2007 TIMSS and 2009 PISA while Muhyiddin, who had taken over the Education Ministry in April 2009, must bear full responsibility for Malaysia's educational performance in the 2011 TIMSS and 2012 PISA.

I have a vested interest in the performance of Malaysian students in international educational benchmarking, as I was responsible in getting Malaysia involved in the global educational assessments in the first place.

In 1996, I met the then Education Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Run Razak, and persuaded him that Malaysia should participate in TIMSS, as I had emailed the organisers of TIMSS, the Netherlands-based International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), inquiring about Malaysia's participation in TIMSS as Malaysia had not participated in the four-yearly TIMSS assessment for eight-grade (Form Two) students.

Najib agreed with me that Malaysia should participate in the international educational assessments so that we know where Malaysian students stand with their peers in other countries, resulting in Malaysia's first participation in a global educational assessment in the 1999 TIMSS.

In 1999 TIMSS, Malaysia's scores on both Mathematics and Science (519 and 492 respectively) were above in the international average, with a ranking of 16 among 38 countries in Mathematics and 22 in Science.

In 2003 TIMSS, Malaysia's performance was similar to that of 1999. The Science score actually increased, remaining well-above the international average, while the Mathematics score dropped somewhat but also stayed above the international average and the country's rank actually improved to 10th place among 45 countries.

I still remember that in my response to the 2003 TIMSS results in December 2004, I cautioned Hishammuddin from being too euphoric at Malaysia's performance, suggesting that a special committee should be formed to analyse the results of the TIMSS 2003 as well as to work out a strategy to emplace Malaysia among the top five scorers in future TIMSS surveys, as there is no reason why Malaysia cannot be ranked among the top five scorers whether for mathematics or science.

In the 2003 TIMSS, Asian students dominated the maths and science tests, with Singapore leading top performers in both mathematics and science, as illustrated by the following results:

Grade-Eight Students:

Top Five in Maths (with score)

  1. Singapore 605
  2. South Korea 589
  3. Hong Kong 586
  4. Taiwan 585
  5. Japan 570

International Average 466

Top Five in Science

  1. Singapore 578
  2. Taiwan 571
  3. South Korea 558
  4. Hong Kong 556
  5. Estonia & Japan 552

International Average 473

I said in December 2004 that if Malaysia cannot squeeze into the top five, we should at least be world’s No. 6 in both the international maths and science tests.

Unfortunately, this was not the case and the 2007 and 2011 TIMSS showed a significant deterioration in performance for Malaysian students as compared to their peers in other countries.

By 2011, the Mathematics score had dropped to 440 points (26th position among 42 countries), while the Science score benchmarks fell to 426 points (32nd among 42 countries).

Up to 38 percent of students in Malaysia did not meet the minimum benchmarks in Mathematics and Science in 2011, an approximately twofold increase since 2007, and five times higher than in 1999.

Malaysia participated in the triennial PISA assessments for 15-year-old students in 2009 and 2012 and performed poorly, stuck in the bottom third for Reading, Mathematics and Science, well below the international and OECD averages, as well as the level of performance expected given Malaysia's income level and that of high income economies that Malaysia aspires to join.

What is most disturbing from the 2012 PISA results is that more than half of Malaysian students (51.8%) do not reach basic proficiency levels in Mathematics, i.e. “low performers below Level 2” in 2012 PISA and only 1.3% of the students are “top performers” (at Level 5 or 6 in 2012 PISA).

In contrast, Shanghai-China (55.4%) has the largest proportion of students who are top performers, i.e. at Level 5 or 6 for mathematics followed by Singapore (40%), Taiwan (37.2%), Hong Kong (33.7%), South Korea (30.9). Between 15% and 25% of students in Belgium, Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, Liechtenstein, Macao, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland and Switzerland are top performers in mathematics.

These 2012 PISA figures do not tally with the local data as according to the 2012 Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR), the failure rate for maths is only 6.3% as compared to the 51.8% in 2012 PISA.

Muhyiddin and the Education Ministry officials should explain this discrepancy but what is very obvious, and which the DAP urgently calls for, is genuine educational transformation to ensure that the objective of our education system is “educational excellence for all students” and not just for 1.3% of the student population with over 51% failures.

Lim Kit Siang DAP Parliamentary Leader & MP for Gelang Patah