What the world is saying about Singapore’s Timss performance

Dec 05, 2016 06.30PM |

by Kwan Jin Yao

GRADES aren’t everything, as nearly everyone is saying in the aftermath of PSLE results. But they do count for something when it comes to comparing how our young people fare worldwide. Because how else can you tell who’s ahead or not unless there’s a uniform test?

Singapore students are still Number One in the Timss or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study released last Tuesday (Nov 29). Previously, Primary 4 students held the top spot three times in math and two times in science, in the past four Timss, while Secondary 2 students held the top spot three times in math and four times in science, in the past five Timss.

Nobody is talking about how our students are being pushed to excel in math and science, but there would be an outcry if they had slipped to second place. Or would people still say “rankings aren’t everything”?

Primary 4 students in Singapore topped the rankings with mean scores of 618 for math and 590 for science, while Secondary 2 students did the same with mean scores of 621 for math and 597 for science.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Timss result is an “assurance to us and to our people that we can look after ourselves, [that] we have the skills and knowledge to be competitive”. Speaking at the People’s Action Party (PAP) Conference yesterday (Dec 4), he added that Singapore is ready to meet future economic and employment challenges. “It is different in Europe, or even in other Asian countries… where youth unemployment is high. We do not have a youth unemployment problem.”

So rather than berate parents who want even higher scores for their children, let’s take some comfort in the accolades our education system has garnered over the past week.

In Australia, The Sydney Morning Herald said that Singapore outperformed the country “because they placed a huge importance on education, particularly science and mathematics, [which] is crucial to the attitude and culture that comes through with the students.” Both The Daily Telegraph and Business Insider Australia cited the importance of educators, noting respectively that “teachers are among the most respected members of the community”, and that “teachers [are recruited] from the top-third of high school graduates,” with additional time set aside for mentoring and self-reflection.

In math, Australia’s fourth- and eighth-graders were 28th and 17th, and in science the fourth and eighth-graders were 25th and 17th. These were all drops since the 2011 Timss.

In Israel, The Jerusalem Post reported that the country’s average score in mathematics was 110 points below Singapore, while its average score in science was 21 points below. Emphasising the importance of STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett said that the Timss result was proof of the urgent need for reform.

“For the future of this country and for the Nobel Prize and the next Waze [a GPS-based geographical navigation application programme founded in Israel, acquired by Google in 2013] developers, we will continue to act to double the number of students taking five units [the highest level] in mathematics, even if there is criticism of some sort or another,” he said.

Israel’s eighth-graders were 16th in math, and 19th in science. They were 7th and 13th in 2011.

In the United Kingdom, the BBC highlighted the performance of the East Asian countries, though perhaps in a backhanded fashion. “A focused, conformist culture, a sense of collective purpose, or even an old-fashioned one-party state are often features of the highest achievers [in the Timss],” the commentary read.

It did note that Singapore has made education a priority and has therefore invested in good, quality teachers, especially in a more competitive regional and global landscape, though qualifying that “there have been concerns about young people [in Singapore] feeling under too much pressure.”

Scores have improved in England. Its fourth-graders were 10th in math and 15th in science, while its eighth-graders were 11th in math and 8th in science.

Besides Timss, there is Pisa or Programme for International Student Assessment of which the results of the 2015 round of testing would be released tomorrow (Dec 6). Secondary 3 or 15-year-olds are tested in Pisa on mathematics, science, and reading. In 2012, there was also an optional computer-based assessment of problem-solving, in which Singaporean students were the best performers.

In the 2012 version of Pisa, Singapore ranked second in mathematics (mean score of 573), and third in both science (551) and reading (542). Students from Shanghai, China, were the best performers across all three domains, and in the upcoming Pisa the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – which runs the tests – announced that Beijing, Jiangsu, and Guangdong will also be taking part.

Now, after going rah-rah over the rankings, it’s time to come down to earth a little.

A few caveats are in order. Comparisons between countries are sometimes limited, because of the dissimilar countries and populations involved. Even with reasonable sampling, the variations for larger countries or populations tend to be larger. In this vein, Timss and Pisa are often more useful for assessments within the same country, across different years. Attention should be paid to the raw scores, not just the rankings.

Furthermore, strong performance in tests is not a guarantee of future prospects or the readiness of students for higher education or professional careers, especially in an increasingly uncertain future. The ultimate test of skills, knowledge, and competencies happens at the workplace, not just in the classroom.

This notion of uncertainty featured throughout Mr Lee’s speech at the PAP conference – the uncertainty for Britain and for Europe after Brexit and the increasingly protectionist stance of developed countries. While young Singaporeans may be on relatively firm standing, complacency or arrogance are not the answers. “Our growth has slowed, our outlook is uncertain, restructuring, and people are worried about jobs,” PM Lee said. “But given the significant difficulties ahead, we have to strive even harder.”

And it appears that just being Number One on tests, in this future, will not be enough.

It does, however, give everyone a very nice feeling.



Featured image math by Flickr user Akash Kataruka(CC BY-ND 2.0)

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