I had hoped to send this letter to you directly but I suspect your offices are besieged by angry protestors, frustrated with corruption and incompetency. So it seemed a better idea to write you an open letter. I am writing this in the hope that this year's O-NET (Ordinary National Educational Test) examinations will better assess the Mathayom 6 students than previous efforts have done.
Now I understand that developing examinations is no easy task so please don't think that I am belittling the hard work your department do, but I do think that someone has 'dropped the ball' in previous years and I hope, for our students' sake, this year's tests 'hit the mark'.
SAT, A Levels and the IB Diploma
Thailand O-NET exams are the equivalent of A Levels in the UK, SAT in the US and the Diploma Programme in International Baccalaureate (IB) schools. As such they not only measure educational attainment but they also come to define those academic programmes.
For example; A-levels are academically rigorous, the equivalent of the 1st year of university in many countries, the IB Diploma is excellently rounded including everything from volunteer work to team projects to individual research and America's SAT assesses critical reading, mathematics and writing, measuring skills that are essential for success in college.
So where does that leave Thailand with its ONET exams?
Well the ONET is a multiple choice paper focusing on facts and rote learning... like I said these exams come to define the educational programmes they assess.
The Thai Education System
Thailand's education system is in poor health, this is one thing that everyone seems to agree on. The latest WEF report puts Thailand 8th in ASEAN. An interesting article in the Bangkok Post covers this.
And in the last PISA rankings Thailand came in below the international standard and ranked 50th from 65 nations, well below numerous other nations in Asia including; Singapore, China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam. You can visit the Wikipedia website for more info on this.
But for everyone's agreement on the problem, we've seen little in the way of intelligent solutions. There was the IT solution a couple of years ago, a free tablet for every child... arguably Thailand's biggest waste of educational funding.
Before that we had the full-scale adoption of child-centered learning - a great idea badly executed with very little training or professional development for the teachers in Thailand's schools. It looked good in theory but the situation in 90% of Thailand's schools never changed with teacher-focused rote-learning marching on triumphantly.
The other solution that politicians love to put forward is the need for a new curriculum, sure the Thai curriculum isn't perfect but it isn't that bad. If you compare the expected outcomes of the core subjects with those in other countries they aren't so different.
In my opinion, the two areas that need to be urgently improved are professional development and educational assessments - and that is where NIETS could help save the day.
A New Format for the O-NET
Perhaps someone at NIETS could look into adopting a new format for the test. The main problem with the multiple choice O-NET examinations is that they do not encourage students to develop critical thinking or communicative skills. Students that wish to do well in these exams need to remember facts, formulas and be exam ready.
Tutor schools are big business in Thailand and they are fueled by the students' (or is it the parents'?) desire to succeed in this multiple choice test. There is no incentive for students to develop research skills, writing skills or critical thinking skills because the O-NET isn't going to be testing these skills. Sad because these are the skills which are necessary for success in quality universities and the 21st Century workplace and that leads me to another problem the O-NET is facing...
Thailand's Top Universities No Longer Value O-NET
When the country's primary examination is no longer valued by that country's top universities, you know something is going wrong. Can you imagine if universities stopped accepting A levels, the IB Diploma or SAT?
Well that is exactly what has happened in Thailand. Thailand's top universities have created their own entrance exams to determine which students they will accept. As a result, many students already have their university place confirmed before the O-NETs roll around, making the exam meaningless to these students. More info on this can be found here.
Questionable O-NET Questions
Apart from being a multiple choice test which doesn't test students' communication or critical thinking skills, there may be another reason why universities are ignoring these assessments. Over the past few years there have been some rather questionable O-NET questions.
Here are a few examples I found online -
Somchai won a lottery. He shouted, ".........................."
b. I don't mind!
c. I hope so!
A : You know what! I had a bad fall in front of the building.
B : .....................
a. Can I help you?
b. How awful!
c. Lucky you!
d. No problem!
A : I heard you've put your dog up for sale!
Are you sure, you can live without him?
B : ........... I just want to see if someone will make an offer.
a. Keep it a secret.
b.That's a great idea.
c.It's just a joke.
d. As you wish
So where shall we start? Well bad grammar (a lottery) and the use of archaic vocabulary in Question 1, is hardly a good start - I'm sorry to break it to you but people don't say ‘hooray' any more.
Then in Question 2 there are two acceptable answers, which one should the students chose?
As for Question 3, I'm not sure who wrote this but I suggest you check what he/she is putting in his/her coffee - this 'real life' situation - someone trying to sell their dog for a joke... I mean really, when is this going to come in useful ?? Furthermore there are two possible answers to this bizarre conversation...
But I think these idiosyncrasies pale in comparison to some of the questions in the Social Studies exam.
If you have a sexual urge, what must you do?
a) Call friends to go play football.
b) Talk to your family.
c) Try to sleep.
d) Go out with a friend of the opposite sex.
e) Invite a close friend to see a movie.
'Nid was a beautiful girl and many boys were after her. She rarely turned them down when asked out on a date. In the end, she had sexual relationship with a friend and showed signs of morning sickness. Worried, Nid consulted her male friend and he told her she should have an abortion. She followed his advice and died of vaginal bleeding.'
What should Nid have done to avoid her tragic end?
a) Preserved her virginity
b) Not engaged in sex because she was not mature enough
c) Paid attention to her studies
d) Not engaged in premarital sex
Question 4 really is a strange question and I recall that the Director of NIETS came out to clear up the confusion. According to your boss the correct answer was - a) Call friends to go play football.
Bearing in mind that this exam is written for both male and female students, this seems a strange answer. I mean, if students really were to follow this advice, there would be a hell of a lot of teenagers running about playing football in the middle of the night.
As for Question 5, I'm really not sure where to start....!?!?!
There are plenty more examples of O-NET's questionable questions online including a great article on AsianCorrespondent.com
I really feel sorry for the Mathayom 6 students preparing for these tests. After 15 years of going through an education system which is below standard, the students must now pass a multiple choice test full of mistakes and ambiguous questions.
I only hope that the exam writers at NIETS have learnt from previous mistakes - the students deserve better.
A Concerned Educator in Northern Thailand