The Arab region has again come out near the bottom in an international comparison of the abilities of 15-year-olds in reading, math and science.
The just released results of the latest round of the Programme for International Student Assessment, better known as PISA, found five Arab countries—Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar and Saudi Arabia—in the bottom one-third among the 79 participating countries.
The other Arab country that participated, the United Arab Emirates, scored slightly above those five. And Qatar, while ranking poorly in global terms, has made strong improvement in its students’ scores.
The results bode poorly, educators believe, for prospects of creating a well-educated citizenry, accustomed to thinking critically, that in turn might improve economies and strengthen civil society and democratic governance in the region.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
Among the regions of the world, the Arab region “probably has the longest way to go to improve,” said Andreas Schleicher, who created and directs the PISA program. The region’s young people “are quite good at repeating what they’ve learned but not at participating in tasks that require students to think creatively.” (See a related article, “Looking at Arab Education Through PISA Tests.”)
He added, as an example, that the least affluent 10 percent of students in China and Vietnam did better in the assessments than the most privileged 10 percent of students in Saudi Arabia.
Strong Improvement in Qatar
There was a bright spot: Contrary to the tendency of most participating countries to see their results largely unchanged over the past decade, one Arab nation, Qatar, has shown strong improvement, though from a low starting point. In all three subjects, reading, mathematics and science, the share of low-achieving Qatari students shrank, and the share of top-performing students increased.
PISA says about one-third of that improvement was due to an increase in the number of immigrant students in Qatar, who, unlike immigrants in many other countries, tended to score better than local-born students.
But most of the improvement appears to be due to Qatar’s substantial efforts to strengthen its education system. The small oil-and-gas-rich nation has invested heavily in improving teaching and in curricular development, says Dakmara Georgescu, a program specialist at the Beirut-based UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States.
Qatar also provides generous support to “independent schools,” nonprofit institutions similar to “charter schools” in the United States that have more freedom than state schools to experiment and innovate. And significantly, Qatar developed a unified education strategy as part of “Qatar National Vision 2030,” to align all aspects of education, including teacher training, curricular development and assessment.
“The challenge in all countries is to shape a vision that is shared so that [all stakeholders] know where they want to go.”Dakmara Georgescu A program specialist at UNESCO’s Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States
Such focus is lacking in many poorly achieving nations, said Georgescu. “The challenge in all countries is to shape a vision that is shared so that [all stakeholders] know where they want to go.”
These latest PISA results came from testing in 2018 of some 600,000 15-year-old students in 79 countries and economies. The assessment exercise, considered the most reliable international comparison of student learning, is conducted once every three years and is run by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based association of 36 mostly developed countries.
In reading, the main focus of the assessments, China and Singapore scored highest, followed by Estonia, Canada, Finland and Ireland.
Effects of Societal Attitudes
The fact that Qatar’s students still rank 18th from the bottom among the 79 countries in reading skills, even after the country’s concerted efforts and considerable spending, suggests that educational outcomes also depend on societal attitudes, which are harder to change.
“If you look at countries that score high in PISA—for example, Finland and Estonia—there is strong family support for reading,” said Georgescu. She added that one study found that the Arab countries are among those where people read the least.
In its section on “school climate,” PISA revealed relatively high rates of student absenteeism in the participating Arab countries (more than double the average in OECD countries), as well as a relatively poor disciplinary climate, said Schleicher, who is head of OECD’s Directorate of Education and Skills and PISA’s director. “Students don’t feel school is a place where they belong or that teachers are particularly supportive or enthusiastic,” he said. “This is a worrying sign.”
One sign of poor motivation among Arab students came from a question asking students whether they agreed with the statement, “Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much.”
In the Arab countries, said Schleicher, students often accepted the statement. But “in Asia, they say, ‘I must work hard.’”
Such differences were reflected in the different levels of student skills between high- and low-scoring countries.
In China, 95 percent of students attained at least Level 2 proficiency in reading. This means that at a minimum, these students can identify the main idea in a text of moderate length, find information based on explicit, though sometimes complex criteria, and reflect on the purpose and form of texts when asked to do so.
“Students don’t feel school is a place where they belong or that teachers are particularly supportive or enthusiastic. This is a worrying sign.”Andreas Schleicher
The OECD official who created and directs PISA
In the OECD countries an average of 77 percent of students attained Level 2 proficiency in reading. But in the Arab countries, Level 2 proficiency ranged from 59 percent in Jordan to only 27 percent in Morocco. According to a statement from the OECD, students who have not reached Level 2 “are unable to complete even the most basic reading tasks, meaning they are likely to struggle to find their way through life in an increasingly volatile, digital world.”
Openness to Reform
Experts say that participating in PISA and thereby opening education systems to international comparison—an often-painful exercise—indicates a willingness of countries to reform their classrooms.
“In my country, Germany, people were very unhappy with the results” of the first round of PISA in 2000, said Schleicher. “Then policy makers started looking at what can be done and 10 years later we had much improvement.”
For the six Arab countries that participated in the latest round (Tunisia, and Algeria also participated previously, but opted out this time), “PISA has been a powerful tool,” said Nafez Dakkak, chief executive of the London office of Jordan’s Queen Rania Foundation for Education and Development.
“For example,” he said, “the test shows that Jordan has one of the largest gender gaps in achievement and provides the necessary evidence for decision makers to take action.”
Many experts say improving student learning outcomes in the Arab region must start with a focus on teaching. “Teachers receive little of the support and continuing training that they need,” according to a report, “Engaging Society to Reform Arab Education: From Schooling to Learning,” by the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Unlike in high-performing countries, in “many Arab countries, the teaching profession is not a highly valued profession: pay-wise, socially, or professionally.”
Moreover, the Carnegie report says, “Arab educational systems do not foster democratic and engaged citizenship.” Instead, “teachers are encouraged to impart lower-level cognitive skills (recall and comprehension) at the expense of higher-level ones (application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and critical thinking).”
But the report says there are signs of change. “Some countries have set up independent evaluation entities, reporting directly to the head of state, to improve the accountability of the system.” Notable examples, it adds, “include the Education Evaluation Commission in Saudi Arabia and the National Evaluation Agency in Morocco.”