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.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 5, 2013
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