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April 16, 2014
Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Poor country scores in PISA tests yet again

Education Minister Alberto Sileoni (l) addresses journalists alongside local officials including his Buenos Aires City counterpart Esteban Bullrich (r).
By Federico Poore
Herald Staff

Argentina ranks 59th out of 65 nations tested by OECD

After years of allocating more than 6 percent of its gross domestic product to education, the country’s students are scoring just as badly as they did in 2000, according to results released yesterday by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Argentina ranks 59th among 65 nations (sixth out of eight Latin American countries), falling one spot compared to 2009, the year of the previous report.

This means 15-year-old Argentines not only performed below the international average in math, science and reading — but also that more than half of the country’s students are below the basic standard for each subject.

In the math test, local students scored 388 points, compared to the 494-point average of OECD members, while a very small improvement was seen in science, where Argentina scored 406 points — five points more than 2009, but well behind the 501-point average.

The most disappointing result was in reading, where the country scored just 396 points, two fewer than in the previous test.

“Improvements were seen in Chile and Mexico, but not in Argentina,” according to the report.

OECD members and associated countries regulary take the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Students are selected from a random sample of public and private schools.

According to the OECD, the test’s objective is to “evaluate how well young adults, who are near the end of compulsory schooling, are prepared to meet the challenges of today’s knowledge societies.”

Official reactions

Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich yesterday acknowledged the country still needed to improve its education quality.

“(It will be) the next challenge” to be tackled by the Kirchnerite government, Capitanich said.

The official recalled that the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration is investing 6.47 percent of GDP to education and has already distributed 67 million books and 3.8 million netbooks to primary and secondary students.

Education Minister Alberto Sileoni also tried to play the results down.

“Even though we’re performing worse than developed countries, it’s hard to compare different education systems,” Sileoni said. “82 percent of teenagers in Argentina are now going to a compulsory middle school.”

The decline

Guillermina Tiramonti, a sociologist from the Latin American University of Social Sciences (FLACSO), did not hesitate to interpret the ranking as bad news.

“Results are poor, quality is on the decline,” Tiramonti told the Herald.

According to the education expert, Sileoni is right to point out the fact that Argentine schools are including previously marginalized sectors — the problem is, the pedagogical model has not changed to adjust to these new students.

“Many kids from low-income backgrounds bring to school many problems, especially absenteeism. But there’s also a high rate of absenteeism among teachers,” Tiramonti added.

Is the government being obliged to “sacrifice” quality in order to achieve social inclusion?

“Not necessarily,” the sociologist replied. “Other Latin American countries such as Brazil are making a huge effort to include new populations — entire generations of children that have never attended school — and they’re doing a little better than us.”

Far from the threshold

Sociologist Cecilia Veleda, who works as the education coordinator at the Centre for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth (CIPPEC), said yesterday’s results prove that the improvement the country has shown between the 2006 and 2009 tests was “not a permanent process.”

“PISA divides results into six levels and establishes level 2 as the basic level from which students are able to show skills for future development — and half of our students fall below that level,” Veleda told the Herald.

Overall, 66 percent students who took the math exam, 54 percent of those who took the reading test and 51 percent of those who took the science test were unable to reach the basic threshold, the specialist revealed.

A final thing to take into account, Veleda said, is that while media are using the PISA exams “to measure the national government’s educational policy,” there is a shared responsibility between the federal and provincial governments.

Different solutions

Throughout the last decade, the Kirchnerite administrations have made a point of increasing spending on education, while passing a law to expand mandatory schooling and to force the government to spend no less than 6 percent of public GDP in the area.

It was a much-needed move following years of disinvestment and the 2001 economic crisis. But specialists argue that few efforts were put in place to improve quality.

In 2011, Buenos Aires City Education Minister Esteban Bullrich tried to publicize the problem by discussing with Sileoni in several forums, while trying to pass a series of initiatives supported by the World Bank and centre-right think tanks.

These measures included tying teacher salaries to test scores, a move that was blasted by teacher unions and some specialists.

“We don’t think change is as easy as some think,” Veleda said. “But at the same time we believe some things are not being pushed strongly enough by the government.”

She added that “PISA and other studies show education quality comes from teaching quality. This is surely the next challenge.”

@fedebillie

China stays up, Finland drops

Shanghai has the highest scores in mathematics, with a mean score of 613 points, 119 points well above the OECD average. Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei, Korea, Macao (China), Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Netherlands, in descending order, round out the top ten performers. Shanghai students also topped the PISA test in 2009. Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the school system in Shanghai is not equitable and the students tested are children of the elite because they are the ones allowed to attend municipal schools because of restrictions such as those that keep many migrant children out. In the education community, Finland has drawn notice for its past test performance, but this year its average PISA score dropped in all three subjects, most significantly in math.

Uruguay sees steep fall in ranking

Chile is the best performer among Latin American countries, while Argentina occupies the 59th spot and Perú the last place in the overall ranking. Uruguay ended up in 55th place, performing worse on all three subjects compared to the last decade and is the one that fell the most between 2009 and 2012. Next to Chile is Mexico, with improving scores in math, reading and science — though not quite reaching the OECD’s mean average. The country’s Education and Culture Minister Ricardo Ehrlich said the results were “worrying.” Brazil, placed 58th, showed significant improvement during the last nine years, but is still far from the mean OECD figures.

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