The Sorry State of Thai Education – Part 3: PISA scores & a challenge for the 21st century

East Asian students are hailed as “superior”. Recent international test scores of students in Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea have given President Obama a Sputnik moment. America is stunned and understandably fears losing its global power house status, if it doesn’t fight to keep up with the brainy new generation in Asia that’s now outperforming their peers in Europe and North America.

Unfortunately that isn’t the kind of good news for Asia that Thailand can share. We all know that Thai students don’t belong in the same class as the world-class East Asian über-geeks. Of course Thailand has a few of our own über-geeks — we do have some stellar students who win medals at the math and science Olympiads but their scholastic achievements are at odds with the general performance of their peers in the Thai education system.

Thai students’ performance in international standardized tests is generally below average. That’s not a surprise given such appalling scores they get in national standardized tests like O-NET, although the word “standardized” may be a bit misleading in the O-NET case. Thai students’ scores in most international tests can be described as mediocre or poor. But as appalling as the O-NET scores? To answer that we’ll need to get into some details.

As the focus is on school pupils, the international test that is the most relevant and highly regarded for measuring performance of school pupils is the PISA test.

What is the famous PISA test?

PISA is the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment  which assesses 15-year-old students in Reading, Mathematics and Science. Starting in 2000, PISA tests have been given to 15-year-olds (M.3 level) in over 70 participating countries and economies every three years. Thailand has been participating in PISA since 2000. This 12:15min YouTube video gives an excellent and easy-to-follow summary of what PISA does in measuring students’ scholastic achievements around the world.)

The most recent PISA results available are from 2009 in which 65 countries and economies participated (10 more joined in 2010). PISA scores are on a scale. Students in three quarters of participating countries score between 400 and 600. Among the best performing countries in the top quarter the average scores range between 500 and 550. The poorest performers in the bottom quarter score in the low 400s or lower.

Where does Thailand stand in terms of PISA scores?

The PISA 2009 results show the following scores for 15-year-old Thai students:

  • Reading: 421
  • Mathematics: 419
  • Science: 425

These scores put Thailand at No. 50 (out of 65) in the PISA 2009 score ranking by country/economy. In other words, Thailand stands right at the top of the poorest performers in the bottom 25%.

Thailand’s scores are on par with those of Mexico, Romania and Uruguay, above 15 countries in the developing world such as Columbia, Brazil, Indonesia, Tunisia, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Albania, Peru, and Azerbaijan, and below other countries in comparable stages of economic development such as Chile, Turkey and Romania.

Figures 1-3 show the mean (average) scores of selected countries in Reading, Mathematics and Science respectively. (The histograms and other PISA score graphics here were retrieved directly from the interactive PISA 2009 Database which contains scores of all 65 countries and allows users to make tables and charts by choosing from many indicators for analysis.)

Figure 1. Mean scores in Reading of selected countries (PISA 2009)

Figure 2. Mean scores in Mathematics of selected countries (PISA 2009)

Figure 3. Mean scores in Science of selected countries (PISA 2009)

What do Thai students’ PISA scores mean?

PISA results give more than just raw or average scores. It also gives assessment of the students’ proficiency levels in each subject.

In Reading, students are tested on their ability to access/retrieve, integrate/interpret, and reflect/evaluate different types of texts. These kinds of reading skills are “more reliable of economic and social wellbeing than the number of years spent in school or in post formal education” (PISA 2009 results executive summary, p.6)

Figure 4 shows eight levels of reading proficiency achieved by the students who took the PISA test in 2009. The better performing countries have most of their score bar above the baseline (0.0). Level 2 (the blue-green color) is considered a baseline level of proficiency, at which students begin to demonstrate the reading skills that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life. There are three levels below the baseline: Level 1a, Level 1b, and Below Level 1b. Students who read below Level 2 have difficulties locating basic information, making comparisons, drawing or interpreting meanings, or making connections between the text and outside knowledge.

Figure 4. Proficiency levels in Reading of selected countries (PISA 2009)In better performing countries/economies (where average reading scores are between 500 and 556) at least 75% of 15-year-olds read at Level 2 or above. Among the top performers (Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Canada and Australia) around 15% of 15-year-olds read at Level 5 and Level 6. Readers at Level 5 can critically evaluate information and build hypotheses drawing on specialized knowledge, develop a full and detailed understanding of unfamiliar text, or understand concepts that are contrary to expectations.

On the other hand, in the poor performer group, less than 60% of 15-year-olds read at Level 2 or higher and very few or no 15-year-olds read at Levels 5 and 6.

In Thailand’s case, 42.8% read below Level 2: 31.7% at Level 1a, 9.9% at Level 1b, and 1.2% below Level 1b. Just over one-third (36.8%) read at Level 2, and 16.7% at Level 3, 3.3% at Level 4, 0.3% at Level 5 and none at Level 6.

This means among 15-year-old Thai students, just over 4 in 10 read below the international average level, just over 1 in 3 read at the international average level, and 1 in 5 read at the slightly above average level, and almost none can read at the highest level.

Now, compare Thailand’s 421 average reading score to over 520 for the top performing Asian countries. The over 100-point difference in the average scores means Thai 15-year-olds are behind their peers in Shanghai, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore in reading ability by at least 2.5 school years! (40 points = one school year)

Now look at Mathematics.

The PISA mathematics assessment requires students to confront mathematical problems that are based in real-world contexts. Students are asked to identify features of a problem situation conducive to a mathematical investigation and to activate the relevant mathematical competencies to solve the problem. This requires various skills, including: thinking and reasoning; argumentation; communication; modeling; problem posing and solving; representation; and using symbolic, formal and technical language and operations (PISA 2003 results executive summary, p.7).

Figure 5 shows seven mathematics proficiency levels from Below Level 1 to Level 6, again with Level 2 as the baseline. Average performers do worse as a whole in mathematics compared to reading, and much worse in the case of the poor performers. That is, more than 50-60% of 15-year-olds in poor performing countries are below the baseline level.

Figure 5. Proficiency levels in Mathematics of selected countries (PISA 2009)Slightly more than half (52.5%) of Thai 15-year-olds have below average knowledge and skills in mathematics: 30.4% in Level 1 and 22.1% below Level 1. Just above one quarter (27.3%) are in the average group (Level 2) and 1 in 5 (19.9%) in the above average group (Levels 3 and 4).

A tiny 1.3% have exceptional math knowledge and skills: 1% at Level 5 and 0.3% at Level 6. This is 1% point more than in reading, but is an insignificant fraction of the 15-year-old math wiz population in Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei and Korea, where up to one-third of 15-year-old students perform at the highest level in mathematics (Levels 5 and 6).

What about Science?

PISA defines “scientific literacy” as the extent to which an individual:

  • Possesses scientific knowledge and uses that knowledge to identify questions, acquire new knowledge, explain scientific phenomena, and draw evidence-based conclusions about scientific related issues.
  • Understands the characteristic features of science as a form of human knowledge and enquiry.
  • Shows awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual and cultural environments.
  • Engages in science-related issues and with the idea of sciences, as a reflective citizen. (PISA 2003 results executive summary, p.13)

 Figure 6 shows also seven proficiency levels in science, like in mathematics. Poor performers in the bottom quarter seem to do particularly worse here as well, with over 50-60% below the international average (Level 2).

Figure 6. Proficiency levels in Science of selected countries (PISA 2009)However, Thai 15-year-olds have slightly higher science proficiency than mathematics. The percentage of below average students in science is exactly the same as in reading (42.8%): 30.6% at Level 1 and 12.2% below Level 1. The percentages of students performing at and above the international average level are also higher: about one-third (34.7%) at the average level (Level 2) and slightly over one-fifth above average, i.e., 17.5% at Level 3 and 4.4% at Level 4.

At the highest level, there is a mere 0.6% of Thai 15-year-olds at Level 5 and none at Level 6. This again compares very poorly to the top performing countries where 15% or more of 15-year-olds perform at the highest level.

So what do these PISA scores mean for Thailand’s future in the 21st century?

A lot. First of all, they show how ill-prepared Thailand is for the 21st century. The scores tell us that Thailand’s future generation is not being well equipped with the type of knowledge and skills that will enable them to do well in the future in which many key aspects of life will require a more demanding level of literacy.

In the increasingly information-intensive future, ordinary individuals will need an ever higher capacity to process more complex information, analytical ability, effective communication, and problem solving skills. The scores tell us that there is very little prospect that Thailand’s future generation will be among the leaders and innovators in the coming decades.

High level skills are critical for innovation, which in turn results in potential leadership and a source of greater knowledge and resources. If we look at the East Asian countries/economies that have lately risen to the top, we see something in common. They have a higher proportion of 15-year-olds performing at the highest level. It’s a stark contrast to our situation. Thailand has a mere 1.3% performing at the highest level in mathematics, 0.3% in reading and 0.6% in science, while 12.3% in Singapore and 14.6% in Shanghai attain the highest level of proficiency in all three subjects. There is no contest, not even remotely.

If you say that it’s not fair to compare the performance of 15-year-olds of the whole Thailand to those in city states like Singapore and Hong Kong, or even big cities like Shanghai or Taipei, and that it would be fairer to compare these cities with Bangkok. True, 15-year-olds from Bangkok alone would show much better and much less embarrassing PISA scores. But that is the point. Bangkok is not Thailand. China also has other provinces which most likely won’t perform as well as Shanghai. But that’s China’s problem, that it is more like a continent than a country. We have our own to contend with.

Disparities among students from poorer-rural and richer-urban areas is one of the biggest challenges for Thailand. Example: in the PISA 2009 the average reading score among the most socio-economically disadvantaged group of Thai 15-year-olds was just 373, compared to 542 of their peers in the most advantaged group. That’s more than four school years apart. According to the OECD, improving education outcome and urban-rural disparities are the top two challenges in human capital development for Thailand.

Source: Kensuke Tanaka, OECD,

What has Thailand done to improve the quality of education in the past decade?      

Thailand has tried to do quite a lot of things in the past decade—setting up the NIETS to organize O-NET was among them—but evidently the initiatives haven’t yielded good results. Thailand’s PISA scores over the past nine years have shown no discernable progress whatsoever:

Subject 2003 2006 2009
Reading 420 417 421
Mathematics 417 417 419
Science 429 421 425

A lot of money has been put into the Thai education system: 20% of overall national budget or 4% of GDP. That rate of spending puts Thailand among the top spenders on education—more than what Singapore and Japan spend relative to size, although other top performers such as Hong Kong and South Korea, and neighboring countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam, also spend around 4-5% of their GDP on education. Yet, as we have seen, Thailand’s results leave much to be desired.

In another comparative perspective, Thailand’s lack of progress looks a failure. While Thailand has more or less stayed at the same place for the past decade, many other countries that were at the same place as Thailand have moved ahead and still others that were already doing quite well have excelled further.

In 2003, Thailand was doing better than countries like Mexico, Turkey, Brazil and Indonesia. But while Thailand’s mathematics scores were identical in 2003 and 2006, Mexico moved up by 20 points and Indonesia by 31 points. Between 2003 and 2006, Mexico, Turkey and Brazil improved their mathematics scores considerably. Mexico managed to reduce its proportion of students performing below Level 2 from 66% to 51%, slightly ahead of Thailand’s 52.5% in 2009. Turkey reduced its own from 52% to 42%.

In reading, Chile, Korea, Brazil and Indonesia are among 26 countries that hve improved their performance since 200o. Chile, Brazil as well as Mexico saw their share of poor performers decrease. Indonesia and Chile’s performance increased at all proficiency levels. In the best performing group, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong saw even more students performing at Levels 5 and 6. Korea even doubled its share of students at the highest reading level in nine years.

In science, Turkey increased its science score by 30 points in just three years since 2006 and reduced the below Level 2 percentage by 17 points, from 47% to 30%, compared to Thailand’s below average percentage now at 42.8.

At present we are still ahead of Brazil and Indonesia, but just because their starting points were much lower. If Thailand did nothing to improve its education, in a few more PISA cycles Thailand’s PISA score bars would likely still be hanging below the baseline in company of new and poorer countries that are just starting out and still have quite a distance to go. Thailand would be like a turtle having a misplaced sense of complacency and sleeping on a marathon, while other rabbits and turtles in the race are running and lumbering by.

So what needs to be done?

Assuming they care, those who have the power to change in Thailand would have to ask themselves: What kind of human capital do we want for the next generation? Do we want high quality knowledge workers and members of society or old-fashioned drones in the mold of the early 20th century? If we want the former, then we have to change the Thai education system—drastically and immediately. If we want the latter, well, we are already doing very well for that.

Thailand already has difficulties keeping up with the human capital demand of 2012. The quality of our graduates is between mediocre and nearly useless. Employers have a tough time filling vacancies in scientific, high-tech and high-skilled areas, whereas new graduates can’t find jobs because they are under-qualified.

However, the value of human capital is not just for producing good enough workers for the job market; it’s about pursuit of meaningful life and wellbeing. It’s about long term survival of our culture, our pride and dignity as a people. It’s the responsibility that every generation has: to do the best by their children.

If we are serious about securing a good future for our children, we must do something now. Giving tablets to primary school children is all well and good; whatever downside there might be, it can only help narrow the inequity gap. But the change urgently needed is more systemic and structural, as challenges are tough and often overwhelming, from poor teachers’ quality, outdated curriculum, unequal access to resources between the rich and poor, urban and rural, to corruption, lack of transparency, and bureaucratic resistance and inertia.

What’s needed is an overhaul of system–of the way things are done. There has been much talk of “child-centered learning” but the real focus in Thai education in practice has never really shifted from the process, procedure, rules and hierarchy, to the child. Education must focus on the child first and foremost. The approach must be result-oriented and the system and those who run it must be made accountable for the results.

There are several countries that have succeeded in their version of reform; many valuable lessons are available to be learned and successful models to be adopted. But whatever promising new approach or model Thailand will adopt, the first thing that needs to be changed is the mindset. For without it, there won’t be a genuine realization of the magnitude of the problem, hence no serious aspiration or political will to push for a real reform.

Forthcoming: Part 4: Thais’ dismal English, how to improve it?


This article was first published for SiamVoices on Asian Correspondent on 1 March 2012.

6 responses to “The Sorry State of Thai Education – Part 3: PISA scores & a challenge for the 21st century

  1. “Do we want high quality knowledge workers and members of society or old-fashioned drones in the mold of the early 20th century?”

    I’ve worked in a government school here for two years, in Trang province, and my sense is that the powers that be in this country much prefer the latter. I think the education system is quite successful actually – at conditioning otherwise bright kids to unquestionably accept the unfair and unjust society they are born into, to do as they’re told and to never question authority, and to graduate with no real skills.

    It breaks my heart, as the students are as smart and capable as you will find anywhere in this world, but the school system almost ensures they won’t ever get to fulfill their true potentials. As a foreigner I’ve felt powerless to do anything about it, and that I am only here to show the parents my white face so that they will pay more money to the school. I wonder even if a “complete overhaul,” as you suggest, is enough, let alone possible. The set-up of the system essentially rewards mediocrity and laziness – if the teachers do the bare minimum – show up to school, sign the book, pass the kids, etc. – they will get a raise every few years, with a comfy pension at the end. Why bother to rock the boat? Why not just sit back and let the broken system creak along?

    The system is also set-up so that it is more lucrative for “educators” to try and claw their way up the power structure – from being a teacher to an administrator, from an administrator to a director, from a director to a provincial officer, from a provincial officer to an MOE bigwig in Bangkok – and all this hobnobbing necessarily happens at the expense of the students’ learning, since an educator’s time and energy is being used trying to get a raise. I’m not saying everyone does this, but I have certainly seen a lot of it at my school.

    I agree with what you’ve written here, and I, too, wish more than anything that there could be better education in Thailand. It’s just that when it comes to “changing the system,” I’ve become very pessimistic. It’s rotten to the core. And like with rotten fruit, you can’t restore it to something edible – you’ve just got to throw it out and start again with something new. My sense is that the future of Thai education will have to come from small groups of caring, dedicated teachers opening their own schools and running them themselves, independent of MOE jurisdiction. (The Green School in Bali is a good example of this kind of thing: )

    But would the MOE ever allow such a thing? It might lead to an intelligent populace capable of critical thinking, and then the elites in this country would really be in trouble…

    • Dear Paul,

      Thank you so much for your long and thoughtful comment. I can sympathize with your frustration. The state of affairs does seem rather hopeless and very depressing. However, hopeless and depressing as it may seem, I am entirely discouraged. There are signs that at least some among the new generation won’t allow themselves to be led by the nose by the system and the poo-yais. Change will happen, perhaps even sooner than we might think. Yes, I am an optimist. 🙂

      On the possibility of the overhaul of the education system, I agree that it’s unlikely. And I agree that changes will likely be influenced (and hopefully inspired) by alternative models in smaller schools. There are now more alternatives than before. Decentralization of the education bureaucracy will also help hugely, and in fact this is where a lot of initiatives get stuck – the highly centralized, lethargic bureaucratic behemoth of the education system. Teachers don’t look at themselves as teachers and educators but civil servants. Aspiration to do better is not in their blood. Still, things will change–eventually. 🙂


  2. There are many interests at stake in education. Some of them, politicians, bureaucrats and most teachers will change nothing of their own volition. The wealthy classes get wealthier off the backs of poorly educated workers, but here there does not seem to be any sense of making even more wealth off smarter workers, viz-a-viz your analogies with east Asia and Singapore. They do not appear to have an active agenda either way. The parents and the community in general are silent and the kids powerless.
    What would it take for Thai parents to demand better outcomes for their children? It goes against the grain. Many parents that I have observed in my poor rural area have little interest in the outcome of education and would never challenge a teacher in any case.
    So it appears that we are left with the system as it is, however I dont concur with the rotten fruit theory. Generally I see kids better educated than their parents and I remain hopeful. A point I have to make, perhaps in ignorance, is that the language and reading seems very hard to learn formally and even ambiguous at times. It does not seem to me to be an ideal language for learning generally or particularly in such topics as science and mathematics, I can see that it is ideally suited for social interactions but perhaps one day Thailand may be better off looking into alternatives. For your more sensitive readers I gain no benefit in making such a suggestion nor do I wish to colonise the country.
    I look forward to your next article.

    • Hi, Australian farang. 🙂 Parents are the products of the traditional education system which has continued to do damage to their children, but like you I believe things will be slowly changing. More young people are now questioning things that their parents’ generation dared not. As for the language issue, Thai language can accommodate all subjects I believe, although I do agree that English would be a more appropriate language of instruction in math and science than Thai.

  3. Thanks for the very interesting article and posts. As language and culture are so linked, it’s impossible to deal with them separately. A way forward, linking to the suggestion about teachers setting up their own schools can be explored by looking at the Mechai Pattana School in Buriram which is attempting to address the issues mentioned. It started with training some teachers to engage learners and encourage them to ask questions and do their own research for projects. More teachers have been trained to meet the school’s requirements as well as engaging with local teachers and encouraging them to adapt their teaching to get their learners to think more.

  4. Pingback: What’s hair got to do with child rights — in Thailand? | Thai Woman Talks – Language, Politics & Love·

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