PISA tells only half the story

First of all, congratulations to Singapore for doing well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests which is run by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) every three years. In the 2012 test, Singapore ranked very near the top. We ranked second place in mathematics, and third in both reading and science.

This results do show that the Singapore education system has been largely successful. PISA results also tally with other international educational tests. To me, this shows that most Singapore students have strong fundamentals in reading (English), mathematics and science.

However, some people are critical of PISA. For example, the top performing education system in PISA is Shanghai, China. Shanghai is course not reflective of the entire Chinese education system. Shanghai’s wealth is generally twice of other cities in China, and the Shanghai parents do participate heavily in the private education sector. On the other hand, United States did badly in PISA. However, individual American states like Massachusetts was only outperformed by only three education systems, and Connecticut by four. It might really not be fair to compare cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore to entire countries like the United States. Despite these criticism, I am not putting down PISA. As a comparative study, I think it is lacking. It does have its merits in measuring competency in reading, mathematics and science.

What I think PISA has not been able to measure is the real life skills necessary for success in the future. It is merely a test of reading, subject mastery (in two subjects only) and simple inferences. They are not able to measure more complex skills like problem solving, creative thinking and collaborative skills. Even the Singapore Ministry of Education agrees. MOE’s Deputy Director-General for Education Loh Khah Gek said, “But there are still limitations to such tests, in that there may be specific skills and competencies that cannot be tested in this way — skills like cross cultural understanding, the ability to connect with people, the ability to collaborate with others.” She later emphasised that these are the skills that really matter.

So, while Singapore students have a firm foundation to work on, they still need to learn and strengthen these skills. It is indeed something schools and parents need to think about when they are deciding on the direction of their children’s education.