Using Pisa for PH education goals | Inquirer Opinion
Business Matters

Using Pisa for PH education goals

/ 05:03 AM December 14, 2019

The 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results have been released for the Philippines and the results are dismal.  The country’s 15-year-olds tested as a group scored lowest among the 79 countries in reading and second lowest in science and mathematics.

Pisa is a worldwide study that evaluates education systems in OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) member and nonmember countries every three years.


The test focuses on problem-solving and cognition—essential 21st-century skills that indicate how prepared a student might be for the real world.

Filipino 15-year-olds scored an average score of 340 for reading versus the OECD average of 487.  (Eighty-one percent of Filipino students were reading below level, with 24 percent one level lower and 57 percent two or more levels below.)


In science, the average score for the Philippines was 357 versus the OECD average of 489.

In mathematics, the average score was 353 versus 489 for the OECD average.

The initial conclusion: low levels of reading comprehension at the root of the problem.  Low functional literacy (reading, writing, arithmetic plus an ability to follow written/verbal instructions to accomplish given tasks) is needed to break down problems into smaller parts in order to solve these.  Our 15-year-olds are having difficulty doing this.

Where might we start?

One, declutter the curriculum.

Two, start with strong fundamentals in reading.

And three, strengthen teacher pre-service and in-service training around the top two concerns.


On the curriculum, ours is too cluttered, with too many mandated competencies to be covered.

In science and mathematics, for example, a study revealed that high-performing countries focused on a lesser number of competencies (8 to 12 in a given year) versus low-performing countries which covered as many as 80-plus competencies.  This meant that students in high-performing countries had time to digest concepts, do more practice on problem sets or written exercises, and generally had time to gain facility and expertise on the subject matter.  The Philippines, however, with 80-plus competencies to cover in a year, does not result in deep learning.

Decluttering the curriculum should start in Grade 1, focusing on foundational competencies and cutting down on the number of academic subjects to be taken.  At higher grade levels, we should abandon the spiraling manner by which the Department of Education does mathematics and science and move back to a more focused discipline approach to the two subject areas.

Teacher training and development is another area that needs to be better managed.

But the key to turning these dismal results around has to begin with reading, starting with preparation for reading in Kindergarten and Grade 1 and proceeding to at-level reading proficiency in all grade levels.  Here, reading does not mean in English alone; reading in any language including the mother tongue should have a positive effect on test-taking in math and science.

Pisa can be the Olympic target for our basic education system.

What should we be aiming for?

We should aspire to be at the world average within nine years (three Pisa test cycles).  This means raising our 15-year-olds’ average score by 130-140 points or by 3 reading levels (or one level per test cycle).

To realize this Olympic dream for gold, we need to start at the base (Grade 1) and scaffold a strong foundation upward to Grade 12.  In the next two Pisa tests (2021, 2024), we will still be doing remediation as our students are already in their late elementary years or junior high school.  But if we start at strengthening reading at Grade 1 today, by 2027 our Grade 1 students will be taking the Pisa test and, hopefully, we will be rewarded with much better results.

This is not a quick fix, however.  What is required is a sustained undertaking spanning multiple presidential administrations.  That will be the true test of how serious we are in addressing this situation.

– Juan Miguel Luz is a former undersecretary at the Department of Education. He is former head of Zuellig School of Development Management at Asian Institute of Management, where he is now an adjunct professor.

– Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).

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TAGS: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Pisa, Programme for International Student Assessment
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