Report spurs calls for education reforms
[24.12.2007, Beata Balogová, NEWS]

Slovak 15-year-olds lag behind OECD average.

A recent international survey measuring the skills of 15-year-olds has both analysts and state officials agreeing that the education system in Slovakia needs to change.

Slovak students are below the average of their peers from OECD countries when it comes to the ability to use the knowledge they learn at school in practical life, according to a survey from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The survey tested more than 400,000 students in 57 countries that make up close to 90 percent of the world economy. Slovakia placed 34th in science, 35th in reading and 30th in math.

While the PISA survey, performed in 2006 in cooperation with the OECD and the participating states, shows that some countries have had significant improvements in student performance since 2000, the message for Slovakia is not very optimistic.

Slovakia scored below the OECD average in all three tested areas: mathematical performance, reading performance and the students’ attitude to science, according to the survey.

As a result of the survey, the Slovak Education Ministry is planning an expert analysis on the country’s education system that will include recommendations, Education Ministry spokeswoman Viera Trpišová told The Slovak Spectator.

“It is becoming evident that the reform of the education system is inevitable,” she said.

The Slovak education system scored almost the same in the 2006 PISA survey as it did in 2003, but the results were considerably worse compared to the OECD average, reads the PISA national report, prepared in cooperation with the National Institute for Education.

“Only the links between the socio-economic background of the Slovak students and the performance they have reached is above the OECD average, which in fact is not good news from the perspective of the equality of opportunities in education,” the report said.

PISA does not measure how well the teachers taught and the students mastered the content defined by the curriculum, so it is not possible to draw conclusions about the quality of the schools or the potential of the students from the report, PISA wrote. Instead, PISA evaluates the degree to which students can use the skills that are considered important to function in society.

In science, Slovakia finished 34th out of 57 countries with a score of 488 points, and 25th out of the 30 OECD countries. The highest level that students can score starts at 708 points and the lowest level is below 335 points. Finland came first with a score of 563 points.

For reading skills, Slovakia ranked 35th overall and 26th in the OECD, with 466 points. The highest level starts at 626 points and the lowest level starts at 335 points. South Korea was first with 556 points, followed by Finland and Hong Kong-China.

In terms of math skills, Slovakia ended up 30th overall and 23rd among the OECD countries. Finland was first again.

In the OECD ranking, Slovakia lagged behind the other members of the Visegrad Four (the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland). The exception was math skills, where Hungary came close behind Slovakia.

Ministry ponders changes

The results were generally stable within the OECD area, but education spending in OECD countries rose by an average of 39 percent between 1995 and 2004, said an official release by PISA.

“Effective and innovative education policies open enormous opportunities for individuals,” OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said when introducing the survey. “They also underpin healthy and vibrant economies.”

The Slovak Education Ministry said it has been working on changes to the education system and is preparing two new laws: one on education and one on pedagogical employees.

There are also two revisions to laws underway. One is the revision to the law on state administration in education and school boards, and the second is the law on educational institutions, according to Trpišová.

“Based on the studies of OECD, PISA and the Slovak National Institute for Education, the ministry will prepare an expert analysis, which will also include recommendations,” she added.

But the ministry could have already acted to improve the system, because the 2003 round of PISA testing also uncovered serious shortcomings, Zuzana Humajová of the Conservative Institute told The Slovak Spectator.

“It found that our students are not apt in understanding more complicated texts; they are unable to formulate independent answers or select the right solutions in problematic situations,” Humajová said.

Schools are still teaching the same way they did in 2003, and the education ministry has not given them any motivation to change, she said.

“In such an environment, improvement would have been impossible,” she said. “The information that their performance has worsened compared to 2003 is negative, but different results could not have been expected.”

Education reform should be about changing the whole system, Humajová said. Trimming some content from the curriculum cannot be considered a reform, she warned. Instead, students must learn to work differently with the information and see it in a wider context and in problematic situations.

Teacher qualifications are still a strength of Slovakia’s schools, according to the PISA country report.

But since 2003, there have not been any significant changes to the number of teachers in Slovakia.

In all the other categories, the schools show much higher shortages of resources than the OECD average.

The situation is the worst in the availability of textbooks, and schools also lack audio-visual resources and material for laboratory exercises, the report said.

“There is much talk about low salaries or leaking roofs in schools, but the financial problems are not the most serious ones by far,” Humajová said.

“I see the inability of the central authority to generate quality in education, despite having all the tools in its hands, as more critical.”

The Education Ministry issues binding curriculums, controls the execution of the curriculums, evaluates the level of education at the schools, and secures textbooks and the further education of the teachers, but none of these seems to function normally, Humajová said.

“We should seriously think about how to decentralise this system, open it up and balance it for the sake of good ideas that could flow from other places, not only from different floors of the education ministry,” she said.

Article was published in the Slovakia`s English-language weekly The Slovak Spectator.

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