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2 June 2015
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Standardised tests: the right option for Thai education reform?

Wanwisa Suebnusorn, Yongyuth Chalamwong

          Labour Development Section, TDRI


“Thai education offers individuals a sense of failure.”

This short but poignant statement by Nicholas Bennett in the 1960s may still be relevant to contemporary Thai society. In his book entitled “Education in Underdeveloped Countries”, Bennett (1965) argued that education for people in the northeast of Thailand should be absolutely different from that for Bangkok citizens.

Similarly, education for Thais should be dissimilar to that for Americans. Unfortunately, policy borrowing led to impractical education that was not locally grounded and not tailored to the needs of individuals. It then unsurprisingly resulted in wastage of investment in education of both individuals and Thai society at large.

Influenced by standard-based reform for increasing economic productivity introduced by world hegemonies, such as the OECD and The American No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Thai students in current education reform are persistently being overwhelmed by examinations. They are called “stupid” because of their poor performance in the national O-NET and international standardised tests, such as PISA and TIMSS. Several studies of manpower preparation for the Asean community also identify this failure as a weakness deterring Thailand’s competitiveness in the globalised knowledge-based society. Henceforth, the present education reform will announce its strategies and indicators to raise the mathematical mean of O-NET scores in core subjects to at least 50 per cent, and achievement of Thai students in PISA is anticipated to be higher than the international average.

It has been pointed out that when comparatively reconsidering Thai and world educational history, an area of concern is the blueprint of our education reform, which is enormously influenced by world education policy and discourse. This is not wrong – if it is based on policy learning, not policy borrowing! Furthermore, no policy is either perfect or totally awful. Throughout the last three decades, the world model of education includes combinations of contradictory, complementary, and the overlapping of several ideal types until nowadays it entails a hybrid of market ideals, community ideals, and state-welfare ideals.

Actually, the debate about standardised tests is not completely new. For several decades, Western thinkers stressed that external examinations were dangerous due to their ability to reduce intrinsic value of intellectual skills. They tested active ideas and required learners to restructure what they knew in some way.

At present, cross-border education as mentioned by Unesco in 2006 also requires benchmarks and standards in order to properly evaluate unfamiliar foreign qualifications and to counteract low-quality providers of education. Regrettably, the rationality of efficiency, calculation, predictability, and control which is termed “McDonaldisation” as stated by George Ritzer in 1996, resulted in an over-emphasis on quantifiable indicators such as grades and rankings.

With regard to our Thai education, chronic backwash effects of examinations hardly prompt me to be confident with the standardisation practices underlined in this reform.

Criticism in the past was characterised by several famous Thai thinkers who perceived that Thai education was limited to learning at schools and the school system continued to depend mostly on a student’s ability to memorise notes in order to pass the examinations required for a certificate. The curriculum reform of 1978 thus abolished the terminal grade examination administered nationally. Testing and examination were instead administered internally by each school.

Disappointingly, up to the education reform of 1999, Thai education in general was still regularly criticised for its rote teaching style and intense competitiveness, through which many students were forced to obtain prized school and university places. It was found that for Thai people in general, education had been perceived more as a means of climbing up the social ladder rather than an end value in itself and Thais had placed importance on form more than contents of education.

It is obvious that Thai education has been sensitive to the undesirable impact of examinations. As proposed by Unesco, the four pillars of education for the 21st century should consist of learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together, as well as learning to be.

Lately, learning to transform one self and society is considered as the fifth pillar for the sake of Education for Sustainable Development. The bottom line is that the purpose of education and learning is not the “one-time-only” task of repeating information in an examination. If we expect our investment in education to be lucrative and fruitful, we need to keep in mind that there is no “one-size-fits-all” policy. It is unimportant whether or not we employ standardisation practices like the industrialised countries. What we should rethink is the quality of our testing methods and how skilful we are in using the test results.

First published: The Nation Website  on October 9, 2011


Yongyuth Chalamwong, Ph.D.
Research Director, Labor Development