Ajarn Street


An open letter to The National Institute of Education Testing Service

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 -


Question 1:
Somchai won a lottery. He shouted, ".........................."
a. Yuck!
b. I don't mind!
c. I hope so!
d. Hooray!
Question 2:
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!
Question 3:
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.

Social studies

Question 4:
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.

Question 5:
'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

The Students Deserve Better

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.

Kind regards
Teacher Daniel
A Concerned Educator in Northern Thailand


Dear Daniel,
Paleeeeeeeeeze tell me how you can say (withouth tongue in cheek, fingers crossed behind your back AND with a straight face) that "Thailand O-NET exams are the equivalent of A Levels in the UK...? Do you know what "equivalent" means?

By George Graham, Thailand (11th February 2016)

"which one should the students chose?"


By MarkCJ, Thailand (2nd May 2014)

Dear Daniel,
It's in fact the whole Thai curriculum that's questionable. As you know, there are two streams in Thailand, Arts (or Humanities) and Science.
Have a look at the standards, both streams must reach these standards. It's a joke! There's only one O-net exam for both streams...
About O-Net and seriousness. Do you know that they always manipulate the results by changing the grade percentages?
Last year, they changed all percentages right after the examination.
I guess the overall national result was so low that they needed to proceed with some 'adjustments'. GPA's go from 0 to 4. How much do you need in Maths to get a 1 (which normally indicates 50.00%<M<54.9%)?
Guess... 3.75%<M<7.49%... This tells us enough... TIT...

By Bernard, Chonburi (27th March 2014)

Daniel's article makes some very valid points persuasively and effectively.

Part of the problem in Thailand is that there's been a succession of different ministers of education, each with his own ideas & agenda. By my count there've been 4 in less than 2 years (with another major change looming as the current political crisis intensifies). This revolving doors scenario hasn't enabled any of the ministers' policies to take root and grow properly.

I wish UK 'A' levels really were as rigorous as the article states. Under New Labour, they were widely perceived as having diluted academic standards (http://www.standard.co.uk/news/academic-rigour-is-the-answer--not-an-a-level-in-dance-6708633.html) although there is more recent evidence that some of their old rigour may be returning (http://www.conservativehome.com/thetorydiary/2013/08/a-level-results-show-pupils-not-just-ministers-want-greater-academic-rigour.html).

By Andrew Elliott, Bangkok (9th January 2014)


So what response have you gotten from the Thai government over your suggestions so far?

Any big changes yet?

Since you have been an educator (English teacher?) since the 1990s, I cannot imagine the government ignoring such sound advice from someone with your qualifications.

Keep us updated on the government’s progress in the implementation of your ideas.


Wow, a country with a GDP per capita of more than four times the GDP per capita of Thailand has a “better” overall education?

Amazing, thanks for the information as I could have never figured that out all by myself. Are you suggesting wealthier countries with more developed economies have better educational systems than do poorer countries with lower levels of development? Based on this new information, could we hypothesize Germany might have a better educational system than does Myanmar?


Obviously, there are problems in the Thai educational system &#40;and most Thais also know there are problems&#41;, but I have serious doubts that foreign English teachers will be hired to redesign the entire Thai educational system.

But maybe I am wrong, and therefore we will see what impact Daniel’s suggestions will have on educational reforms in the country.

To each his own, but I have never had a desire to bang my head against a wall and if I were teaching English in Thailand (something I did for a few years quite some time ago), I would concentrate my efforts on helping my students to the best of ability within the system, as this is something I would have control over, as opposed to whining and whinging about the “system” which I would have little to no control over.

In my years in the Kingdom, I have heard (and read) hundreds of complaints from foreign English teachers about Thais and the Thai educational system, but I have never seen any of these complaints result in changes in the system nor have these rants seem to have been helpful in the individual careers of those doing the complaining.

But if any of you (Daniel, Dean and any others) feel these anti-Thai rants are useful, by all means, carry on and best of luck in achieving whatever it is you are hoping to achieve.

By Jack, Near a cup of coffee in LOS (8th January 2014)

Is "Jack" possibly short for something else? If not, then you clearly didn't read the article and note the very valid criticisms Daniel makes of the O-NET test and how it is a reflection of the utter disaster that is the Thai educational system. Had you read it, you would have noted, as Daniel did, how utterly ridiculous those example questions are and you might have had the same reaction Daniel and other readers had -- reactions of disbelief, valid as any, when nonsense is made "official" on a test and is expected to be taken seriously. But no, yours in the standard knee-jerk reaction to anyone who criticizes aspects of a system that should be criticized and should be fixed so that Thai kids aren't being subjected to such nonsense.

Clearly, Daniel is a teacher in the trenches and, by experience, is qualified to critique and evaluate a system that everyday he recognizes as irrational and a waste of time and money. But more: Daniel is qualified because he has a brain. And that's what you do with a brain -- you perceive, evaluate, and describe what is good and what is bad, using your divine gifts of reason to make (Buddha forbid!) judgments of a qualitative order. Believe it or not, Jack, oh conformist ye of great postmodernist culture that believes everything -- even the most inane, anti-intellectual drivel -- should be tolerated ("don't say anything, because people will get upset!"), Education is about CONTENT or it's about nothing. I would have thought that was obvious, but apparently it's not. Is your preference for more of the same -- smiling faces and "happy, happy, happy"?

Regardless, you believe Daniel should just do as you do and say, "Oh well, it's all good. And I can't say anything because I'm not Thai"? Forfeit his perceptive and analytical abilities because of his ethnicity? And what does the "legal system" in Thailand have to do with anything? Why does Daniel need to know Thai Law to evaluate whether a "Social Studies" question about how to handle a "sexual urge" has any educational merit?

Oh right. Sorry. He criticized something. No criticisms. Criticism bad. Disaster good. Happy, happy, happy.

Best of luck in your polite society!

p.s. I live in Taiwan, my second Asian nation as an educator, and, here, Education is leaps and bounds ahead of Thailand. And English is truly a second language.

By Dean, Taipei, Taiwan (7th January 2014)

Tony, Jonathan and Serge,
Thanks for your input to this debate, good to hear from more concerned eductors.

I m not on a crusade but having been involved in education in Thailand since the late 90s I feel able to share my thoughts with fellow educators. I do so because i am genuinely concerned.

PS i dont have a '4 week wonder certificate'

By Daniel, Northern Thailand (7th January 2014)

If you are qualified, why don't you offer your services to the Government of Thailand to redesign all tests and the entire education system?

I am sure a position with these responsibilities would pay much better than a job teaching English and from my experience Thai government and school officials are always glad when a farang English teacher, with his 4 week wonder certificate in ESL as his highest qualification in education and a limited understanding of Thai culture and legal system, tells them they are all stupid and need to change the entire national system to fit the view of this single English teacher.

Good luck on your crusade!

By Jack, In front of my computer (7th January 2014)

I'm very pleased to see that some teachers are aware of this situation.
IMHO, the very first improvement should be to STOP these multiple-choice style exams.
I don't know how things are going on in the english-speaking world, but in France the only multiple-choice exams are the driving licence or some entrance tests for a civil officer position ("fonctionnaire" is often synonym of "lazy" in french ;) ).
There are sometimes two or three choices questions, but the students usually need to explain his/her choice. Not only tick a box on a lottery-style ticket.
Good luck :)

By Serge ISRAEL, Chiang Mai (7th January 2014)

I quite agree with this problem but the sad fact is that a total overhaul is required throughout. Even the example questions used are not as bad as I have had the misfortune to see. We have to remember that there seems to be no western input into these exams from an English point of view, I would certainly hope that at some point in the very near future the Thai Education Department sees that it is going to need the services of native English speakers. Critical thinking as you say does not enter into any part of school life and sadly that will remain the case until the schools chuck out all their course books and introduce relevant material. When this happens is open to question, I try on a daily basis to get my primary students to think for themselves but it is alien to them. All we can do is plod on and do our best for them and hope that the authorities take heed and start to do their best for the Thai students also.

By Jonathan, Thailand (6th January 2014)

Right on the money, Daniel; Thai students definitely deserve better than the substandard education they receive at government schools in particular. Not only the education but also the way they are treated: many being hit with sticks and having to sit on concrete in the hot sun every single morning listening to some guy waffling on and on in an attempt to make himself look and sound more important than he really is. I could go on.
The sad fact about critical thinking skills is that by the time students reach the O-NET test in M.6 they simply don't have any. They've never been required to think or analyse or even question in class, only needing to stay awake at their tiny, museum-standard wooden desks and chairs and then copy words into their notebooks which they must memorise later for tests. That's not learning and they deserve better, they need to be encouraged to question and wonder and imagine and use their brains.
Let's hope someone from NIETS reads your open letter and has the courage to take its content on board - but I'm not holding my breath.

By Tony Mitchell, Pathumthani, Thailand (6th January 2014)

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