Triple woes for Malaysia in the 2012 PISA international student assessment for mathematics, science and reading


If only Malaysia had made slight progress in all the three subjects of mathematics, science and reading in the 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) as compared to the previous PISA test in 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin would have highlighted the issue in his speech when opening the annual general meetings of Umno Youth, Wanita and Puteri on Tuesday night (the PISA results were released earlier the same day) as evidence that Malaysia was progressing towards a world-class education system under his leadership.

But the 2012 PISA results were more grounds for despondency rather than celebration, and this is why Muhyiddin was conspicuously silent about the PISA results – unlike his Singapore counterpart, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat who said on the same day the PISA results were released that he was “very happy that Singapore’s 15-year-olds had done “very, very well” in 2012 PISA, as the Singapore students ranked second in mathematics and third in science and reading in the global assessment taken by about 510,000 15-year-old students in 65 countries and regions.

The Thai Education Minister, Chaturon Chaisang was upbeat with the results of the Thai students scoring 441 in reading, 427 in mathematics and 444 in science (beating Malaysia in all three subjects), saying that the Thai ranking demonstrated the country’s potential and could attract investment.

Malaysia has more than enough reasons to rue the 2012 PISA, as the country has proclaimed that it aspired to be in the top third of the countries in the world in terms of performance in international assessments, as measured by outcomes in the PISA or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) by 2021.

In fact, Muhyiddin had even said before the publication of the Preliminary Report of the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2015 last October that Malaysian youngsters are receiving better education than children in the United States, Britain and Germany.

Muhyiddin’s claim is not only not borne out by the latest TIMSS and PISA reports, but the latest 2012 PISA represents triple woes for Malaysia’s 15-year-olds and our education system, viz:

  1. Malaysia seems to be stuck in the bottom third of the countries surveyed in international assessments, and not making any upward move towards the upper tier of the top third of the countries.

    This is illustrated by the worsening of Malaysia’s results in the 2012 PISA as compared to the previous 2010 PISA, viz:

    Maths Science Reading
    2010 2012 2010 2012 2010 2012
    Score 404 421 422 420 414 398
    Rank 57 52 52 53 55 59
  2. Although at the bottom third of the pile, Malaysia is being overtaken by other countries in the group, like Kazakhstan whose mathematics score have widened from one point difference in Kazakhstan’s favour (2010: Kazakhstan 405; Malaysia 404) to 11 points (2012: Kazakhstan 432; Malaysia 421) and well as turning the table and overtaking Malaysia in science from 400 for Kazakhstan in 2009 PISA as against 422 for Malaysia to 425 for Kazakhstan in 2012 PISA as against 420 for Malaysia.

    Another example is Thailand which beats Malaysia, widening the lead in all three subjects:

    (2012 PISA) Maths Science Reading
    Thailand 427 444 441
    Malaysia 421 420 398
  3. But the most disconcerting result from the 2012 PISA is the widening gap between Malaysia and the “top performers”.

The Malaysian Education Blueprint states:

“Over the past two decades, international student assessments, such as the Programme for international Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), have emerged as a means of directly comparing the quality of educational outcomes across different systems. These assess a variety of cognitive skills such as application and reasoning…

“The results from PISA 2009+ (the first time Malaysia participated in this assessment) were also discouraging, with Malaysia ranking in the bottom third of 74 participating countries, below the international and OECD average.

“Almost 60% of the 15-year-old Malaysian students who participated in PISA failed to meet the minimum proficiency level in Mathematics, while 44% and 43% did not meet the minimum proficiency levels in Reading and Science respectively.

“A difference of 38 points on the PISA scale is equivalent to one year of schooling.

“A comparison of scores shows that 15-year-olds in Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Shanghai are performing as though they have had 3 or more years of schooling than 15-year-olds in Malaysia.”

The disparity in the scores between 15-year-olds in Malaysia and the 15-year-olds in Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Shanghai have widened since the previous PISA.

Based on the difference of 38 points on the PISA scale being equivalent to one year of schooling, the disparity has widened to reach a stage where the 15-year-old in Shanghai, Singapore and South Korea are performing as though they had four or even five more years of schooling than 15-year-olds in Malaysia.

This is illustrated by the following chart:

2012 PISA score
(bracket : difference in years of schooling)

Reading Maths Science
Shanghai 570 (4.5) 613 (5) 580 (4.2)
Singapore 542 (3.8) 573 (4) 551 (3.5)
S. Korea 536 (3.6) 554 (3.5) 538 (3.1)
Hong Kong 545 (3.9) 561 (3.7) 555 (3.6)
Malaysia 398 421 420

As Education Minister, Muhyiddin cannot remain silent but must explain how he proposes to overcome and resolve the triple woes for the Malaysian education as highlighted by the 2013 PISA results.

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  1. #1 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 1:37 pm

    If you go to the ground and talk to these students, you will know firsthand the abysmal state of affairs in Malaysian education system.

    It took Malaysia 30 years to plunge so low.
    Do you think it will take 30 months to remedy the situation?

    Fat dreams!

    30 years to turn the titanic mess around, God willing. The rot is that deep and wide!

  2. #2 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 2:13 pm

    The top countries in the PISA test are all from what I call the “chopsticks” countries – China, Singapore, HK, Taiwan, Japan, Macao, Korea. Draw your own conclusions. And Malaysia is trying its best to ask its chopstick citizens to balik kampong.

  3. #3 by Di Shi Jiu on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 2:20 pm

    Mr Lim,

    Come now, come now.

    Are you serious? Did you say Kazakhstan? You’re kidding, right? Kazakhstan, where Borat is supposed to come from?

    Oh, you were not joking! Kazakhstan is better than Malaysia in Maths and Science.

    But, but, but, no less an authority then the incumbent Minister for Education himself has insisted that Malaysia has a better education system than the US, the UK and Germany. And this during 2012, when data for the 2012 PISA report was probably being compiled!!!

    In fact, just recently, a month ago, the Minister unveiled his Education Blueprint which is supposed to take Malaysia to even greater heights.

    Surely the Minister cannot be just bare-faced lying? Surely the Minister cannot be so deluded as to believe his own propaganda? Surely the Minister cannot be blind to the reality in his portfolio?

    Hm, or maybe he can?

  4. #4 by yhsiew on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 2:21 pm

    Triple woes – this is the cost to pay for interfering education with politics.

  5. #5 by Bigjoe on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 2:24 pm

    Perhaps the single biggest abuse of power is what they have done to education. They have done to education the same thing they are now doing for all other aspect of this country – sold Kool-Aid while brain-washing the drinkers its magic potion.

    Even now with the so-called education blue-print – they continue to sell just a tastier Kool-Aid – still largely empty of what is necessary for the future of this country.

    The problem is not salveagable under UMNO/BN because they have been drinking their own Kool-Aid and the version just get more fake as proven by the current UMNO GA. Mahathir never did – he sold Kool-Aid but he sucked blood – something they all will end up doing to the rest of us once they fall from the artificial high they are on.

  6. #6 by Rufus Mallu on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 2:26 pm

    Base it on meritocracy, improve standard of English, don’t change historical facts, be open to learn from countries who have proven track record. Dont mix education with race or religion. Perhaps some improvements can be seen then.

  7. #7 by sheriff singh on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 2:53 pm

    Too bad our Education Ministry people could not ask PISA to lower the passing mark to 15%. If they had, maybe we could have ‘performed’ better with a string A+ or Distinctions.

    Maybe we can get around this low rankings by giving all our institutions the ‘Royal’ title which should be good for a few bonus point on PISA.

    Our problem is really in three areas:

    1. We have a very poor, inefficient, politically interfered with, delusional, gigantic dinosaur Ministry of Education which does not seem to know what it wants, where it is going and what to do. Full of controversies. Manned by incompetents who think they are Gods and can do no wrong.

    2. Do we have properly trained, dedicated and competent teachers? If not, won’t our students suffer?

    3. Are our students being taught by competent teachers or are they just being spoon-fed etc with rubbish, that they all become not creative, unable to think and fend for themselves?

    We need a major overhaul to bring us back to the old days when our education system and educational institutions were well-respected. Look where Singapore has headed.

    We are just jagong or just jagoh-kampungs and we delude ourselves that we are in the leading pack of the world. Talk is cheap but the reality hurts.

  8. #8 by saheba on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 3:23 pm

    This is a national tragedy indeed. A sad state of affairs due to mixing politics with education. The Ministry has much to answer for.

  9. #9 by Cinapek on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 3:51 pm

    I am waiting for someone in Govt who will dispute the integrity of this PISA test. Alternatively they may claim “we do it our way” a line made famous by one of our ministers during a Hardtalk show on BBC when he could not defend the indefensible.

    Top US universities rely heavily on the SAT score results when selecting applicants for the limited places yearly. The SAT test comprise of yes, you guess it -Maths, Science and English. With such poor PISA results, it will become harder for Malaysian students to aspire to enrol in top US universities such as the Ivy League universities.

    I suppose with the typical culture of mediocrity, our Govt will be more than happy that our sponsored students can enrol in the second or third tier universities.

  10. #10 by tuahpekkong on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 4:17 pm

    After reading the seditious and racist remarks that have been spewed out at the on going UMNO generally assembly, you take these people care about the slide in our education standard? We must progress together, students must score the same marks and get the equal number of As. Never mind if standard is being lowered to achieve this. A parent has written to to Sin Chew that there are leaks in the SPM exam questions almost yearly. Presumably, this is to allow more people to score distinctions. Very soon we will be overtaken by other SEA countries, not just Thailand alone.

  11. #11 by boh-liao on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 4:43 pm

    Of cos UmnoB very happy with PISA 2012, esp MMK who engineered our education system n policy 2 ensure dat most rakyat, esp Malays n Bumiputras, hv poor reading n reasoning skills – when rakyat bcome too smart, dat’s d day UmnoB bcomes irrelevant (can no longer brain wash rakyat dat UmnoB is d saviour of Malays n Bumiputras)

    Objective achieved

    Of cos, 4 wayang, UmnoB may protest a bit lah, by saying dat dis is an international chopstick plot 2 belittle 1M’sia
    UmnoB may send d teapot professor 2 protest against PISA n defend 1M’sia
    UmnoB will cite evidence-based improved annual performances of our students in all our public n matrikulasi examinations, just look at d exponential increase in d number of ALL As or CGPA 4 students

  12. #12 by boh-liao on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 4:55 pm

    LKS, don’t belittle d efforts of UmnoB, moooo
    They engaged experts n spent multiple millions on them 2 come out with d blueprint (or is it blue film)
    They built schools n teaching hospitals (many still with intact ceilings, but by d grace of god) 2 educate students

  13. #14 by sheriff singh on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 5:06 pm

    This calls for yet another Consultancy Contract with say, ah, Lehman Brothers?

  14. #15 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 5:09 pm

    Now that PISA shows that Malaysia is a pisang (banana) country with an education that peels off when the tests get tough, this is REASON enough for the highly beloved and super-smart Minister of Education to employ more consultants and pay more billions to write more blueprints on how to lower the marks still more so that Malaysian students can be world-class in scoring more As than all those chopstick countries.

  15. #16 by cskok8 on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 7:23 pm

    Not to worry, we have more students scoring all distinctions in the SPM than any other country. So we are still ahead of everyone.

  16. #17 by boh-liao on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 8:45 pm

    Actually, Malaysia’s 15-year-olds who aspire 2 b UmnoB members when they bcome 18 years old NO NEED 2 know how 2 count properly – fr d on-going UmnoB GA, joining UmnoB is like joining a monopoly club, every UmnoB demanding minority-elected gomen 2 give them all sorts of businesses
    No need 2 know how 2 count lah or 2 read, just need 2 know WHO’s who in UmnoB, then $$$$ will drop fr d sky in2 their pockets
    Just look at wanita, jiak kah liao, we want more, more, more, also can use official planes 4 personal agendas 1

  17. #18 by sasha pranth on Friday, 6 December 2013 - 10:51 pm

    Now we know that all those 5As at UPSR level and 7As at PMR are doctored, giving false hope to students who think they are actually smart. In Malaysia, quantity is valued over quality. If you bag the required number of As, you’re smart. Nevermind that you cannot form coherent sentences, cannot do quick and simple maths, cannot spell to save your lives or just regurgitate everything you learn in class without actually understanding it. Thanks to our deplorable education system bent of spewing out As to undeserving students, we have destroyed a generation of Malaysians who could have been critical thinkers who are creative and intelligent had not the system failed them. Instead we have a bunch of bird-brains who strut around like proud peacocks. Sad.

  18. #19 by tak tahan on Saturday, 7 December 2013 - 12:01 am

    No wonder why only non-Malays worry about the counting and means to survive.So what the Umno/Malays want in the private companies ?? Free ride to kingdom/hell where one just stay and f%^k at home,doing nothing,izzit ? More lazy and stupid produces for nons to take care of ?!

  19. #20 by boh-liao on Saturday, 7 December 2013 - 11:40 am

    Rakyat M’sia must realise how SAD n BAD dis nation has become under racist n greedy UmnoB

    No comparison between UmnoB kaki with Nelson Mandela:
    “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”

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