Poor student performance in international tests is a complex problem that all stakeholders need to work on

Students / Photo: "Sloboden Pechat" / Dragan Mitreski

Everyone should work, starting with the parents, to provide conditions for the largest possible coverage of children in preschool institutions, to use modern methods, to have training for teachers. All these things are done in order to achieve better results. In a few years we will see the results of the new concept introduced in primary education, and I think they will be better, says the director of the State Examination Center.

For years, Macedonia has been at the bottom of international tests of students' knowledge. Results from the latest 2022 PISA test ranked high school students 61st in math and 71st in language literacy, out of 81 countries. Students scored 380 points in natural sciences, which ranked the country 68th in Europe. In that year, students from most of the countries that participated in the testing showed poorer results, and the reason was the covid-pandemic.

Why have Macedonian students for years had poor results on international tests in natural sciences, mathematics and reading comprehension? What is the problem and is something being done?

The answer is that many factors are involved in this problem, and the solutions are complex.

Photo: "Free Press" - Dragan Mitreski

Prof. Dr. Kalina Maleska from the Faculty of Philology Free Press says that the approach to teaching, the textbooks that lack exercises that encourage logical and creative thinking, the circumstances in schools, but also more widely, social and technological changes have an influence, and sometimes it can be more about a lack of motivation than an impossibility to achieve better results. According to her, in order to improve functional literacy, it is necessary to work on changing all these factors.

The director of the State Examination Center Biljana Mihajlovska points out that in 2022, a large number of countries had lower results on the PISA test, but adds that there is still a problem, and all authorities must recognize it and work to solve it. According to her, the poor results are not only because of what the teacher does in the school, but it is a complex problem in which everyone is involved.

Why are students weak in international tests?

PISA is one of the most famous and credible international tests that measures literacy, that is, the applicable knowledge that a student needs to continue his education and succeed in his personal and professional life. The tasks in the tests are related to real situations in which the students can find themselves, and the answers do not measure the reproductive, but the functional knowledge that is important for connecting, understanding and solving problems.

After the announcement of the results, the Ministry of Education and Science announced that the reason for them is the negative consequences of the covid-pandemic on education. According to the Ministry, the results show a general decrease in the level of language, mathematical and scientific literacy among students at the age of 15 in almost all participating countries. Minister Jeton Shaqiri then stated that he was not satisfied with the results and pointed out that reforms were needed. According to him, the teaching staff is key in creating better results.

Then the UNICEF Office in Skopje reacted, from where they pointed out that "the price we will pay is high, if the learning crisis does not become a national priority". UNICEF representative Patricia DiGiovanni said that "the country should be seriously concerned by the latest results that show regression" and that "for too long we have allowed children to fall behind in reading, mathematics and science".

The director of the State Examination Center, Biljana Mihajlovska, believes that different factors have an impact in different countries, but there are also similarities at the world level.

- Everyone has a role here, starting with the creators of educational policies, those who decide what the curriculum will be, then how the textbooks will be made based on those programs, then how it will be implemented in the classrooms, which methods and techniques will be used the teachers, what is the student's motivation and what knowledge does he come from home with - explained Mihajlovska.

Biljana Mihajlovska / Photo: "Sloboden Pechat" / Dragan Mitreski

All those factors when combined create a very complex issue, she adds, and it cannot be said that the problem is one.

- Of all the research we have done, there are some that coincide with knowledge at the world level and that can and must be worked on. For example, the books in the home. Students who answered the questionnaires that they have more books at home, have a higher score both at the world level and in our country. We should not let children read only short texts on the Internet, we must not forget books. Second, the education of parents is a constant problem. The higher the parents' education, the better the students' results, because it is obvious that the personal characteristics of the parents are reflected in the students. Going to kindergarten also has a big impact. Students who attended kindergarten for two to three years always have higher results - says the director of the State Examination Center.

Students / Photo: "Sloboden Pechat" / Dragan Mitreski

Mihajlovska points out that it is necessary to work with students who study in rural areas, because those who study in urban areas always show better results on tests.

- There is one factor that constantly appears in our country, it is the socioeconomic status of the parents, but also of the school. The better the position of the school and the parents, the better the results of the students. In my opinion, we cannot let students who come from families with a lower socioeconomic status have lower results, and therefore schools have to invest much more - said Mihajlovska.

Another noticeable factor is that schools with more resources and extracurricular activities perform better.

- Everyone should work, starting with the parents, to provide conditions for the largest possible coverage of children in preschool institutions, to use modern methods, to have training for teachers. All these things are done in order to achieve better results. In a few years we will see the results of the new concept introduced in primary education, and I think they will be better - concluded the director of the State Examination Center.

What should be done to improve results?

Professor Maleska is the coordinator of the project for the development of functional literacy in primary and secondary schools. She says that this project is currently implemented on a voluntary basis, that is, without financial resources.

- Therefore, in this first phase, the invitation to participate was sent through the Teachers' Associations, with the focus group being the teachers of mother tongue and foreign languages. 30 teachers from 23 primary and secondary schools individually applied for participation in the project. Apart from this teaching staff from primary and secondary schools, teaching staff and post-graduates from the "Blaje Koneski" Faculty of Philology also participate in the project - points out prof. Maleska for "Free Press".

Kalina Maleska / Photo: Igor Todorovski

When asked if there is any progress, the professor pointed out that they are currently working in groups to prepare activities that are in accordance with the recommendations and guidelines for improving functional literacy in the reading comprehension section.

- Through researching scientific papers that deal with this topic and participating in seminars and workshops for functional literacy in the area of ​​reading comprehension, I prepared general principles that serve as guidelines when creating activities that would be applied in classes with primary and secondary students school taught by teachers participating in the project. For now, we are working on considering activities that would be implemented next semester, which means that they have not yet been implemented in schools. We would have the initial results and data approximately in December of this year - she adds.

This project focuses on one of the factors that should improve functional literacy, which is the teaching approach. In particular, we are working on devising activities to provide students with skills that will enable them to connect information from multiple sources, draw relevant conclusions from given texts, read with understanding, think critically and express their opinion in an argumentative manner.

- The results of international tests are some kind of indicator, but those tests are often related to cultural factors and are not always adapted to the conditions in which they are conducted. That is why the improvement of education in general should be more important than improving the results of standardized tests - Professor Maleska concluded.

There were also disappointing results in the region

This is Macedonia's fourth participation in PISA, through the Ministry of Education and Science. Previously, the state was part of the studies in 2000, 2015 and 2018. In the months of April and May 2022, 6.610 students from 111 secondary schools were covered, where, depending on the size, 35 to 155 students were tested in Macedonian and Albanian. Realizer of the study in our country is the State Examination Center.

In 2000, Macedonia was in 38th place in reading comprehension and mathematics, while in natural sciences in 36th place. 41 countries participated that year.

In 2015, there were 72 participating countries, and Macedonia was ranked 69th for reading comprehension and natural sciences and 68th for mathematics.

In 2018, Macedonian students were ranked 66th for reading, 67th for mathematics and 62nd for natural sciences.

The latest PISA test did not bring good news for the region either. Albania and Kosovo have a worse average than us in all three categories. However, the average of students in Serbia is below that of the OECD countries. Croatia did best in all parameters, with an average of 472 points in mathematics, 476 in reading and 485 in natural sciences. Bosnia and Herzegovina did not participate in this testing.

Classroom / Photo: "Sloboden Pechat" / Dragan Mitreski

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