In an August 24 Senate hearing reported by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Senator and presumptive presidential candidate Mar Roxas expressed incredulity at a report by the Department of Education that set the passing grade for the National Achievement Test at 66%, higher than the previous year’s score but still far below the 75% benchmark established as a goal by the DepEd. PDI quoted Roxas as saying, “You’ve created a world that all looks good, wonderful. We are fooling ourselves and the pupils by lowering the standards.”
In Part Two of our examination of this subject we will take a look at Senator Roxas’ plans, or lack thereof, to address the inadequacies of the public education system, but first an explanation of the NAT, its significance, and the problems it creates is in order. The National Achievement Test, which is an updated version of the National Elementary Achievement Test, is given to all Grade 6 students to assess their knowledge of five subjects: English, Pilipino, Science, HEKASI (a catch-all which comprises Geography, History, and Civics), and Mathematics. The test is ordinarily administered in January, shortly after students return from the Christmas holiday break.
The objective of the test is not to determine whether or not an individual student is sufficiently prepared to move on to the secondary education level, but rather to assess the effectiveness of the elementary schools. In this regard, the NAT is similar to the testing paradigm in place in the U.S. over the last ten years, and thus carries many of the same risks to educational quality that U.S. parents and educators have discovered: the day-to-day curriculum and teaching methods in the schools are modified to prepare students for taking the test, with fundamental concepts like critical thinking skills and examining broad subject areas taking a backseat to rote memorisation within very narrow subject areas. This is especially acute in the test-taking grades, Grade 6 in this instance, but even affects lower-grade students, as the preparation for the eventual testing is begun earlier as a response to year after year of poor performance.
The flaw in the concept, which has been the basis of a backlash against the same sort of testing regime in the U.S. in recent years, is that the testing is used as a carrot-and-stick measure against the schools. School funding and support is tied to testing performance, with better-performing schools reaping the benefits while schools that perform poorly are penalised. Rather than focusing resources on the things that make those schools perform poorly in the first place – low teacher pay, insufficient staffing, outdated and insufficient educational materials, overcrowded classes – the poor schools fall farther behind and lose students to the better schools, which then begin to suffer some of the same problems of overcrowding and inadequate resources. In effect, the testing-performance based assessment of schools ‘dumbs down’ the entire system, the opposite effect of what it was intended to do.
In the U.S. school communities have been able to reject the federally-mandated testing programs, because historically the contribution of the Federal government to local education is quite small, amounting to around 7% of the local school budgets. Here in the Philippines, of course, local public schools derive nearly all of their funding from the DepEd, and do not have the option to drop the testing program. As a consequence, test performance becomes a managerial rather than an educational issue for school administrators, with the sadly predictable result that, even if their students do well in the testing, they have still learned far less than they could have if the program was not the schools’ Sword of Damocles.
The 66% passing grade on the NAT represents the average score for the complete test among all public elementary schools, and so the DepEd sets this as the benchmark for the next year’s testing, which will take place in January 2010. Any school that reaches or exceeds this benchmark will be considered to be doing an adequate job of educating its students, while those schools that fall below this mark will receive whatever remedial attention the DepEd has in mind for them. No matter what the scores, no sixth-grade student will be prevented from moving on to high school on the basis of the NAT, which led Senator Roxas to ask, “Why do we conduct the tests?”
Why, indeed. The testing program, even if it was consistently producing high average scores, fundamentally damages education and produces students who are unprepared for more advanced learning in high school and beyond. As Senator Roxas pointed out, a college degree from the Philippines is no better than a high school diploma from elsewhere in the world, simply due to the amount of remedial education that must be given in higher learning institutions to make up for the primary and secondary schools’ shortfalls. To add insult to injury, the schools are even doing a poor job of turning out good test-takers. Rather than setting a firm standard and then addressing the root causes of why some schools and students cannot meet the standard, the DepEd responds by simply setting the bar lower.
Little wonder then why jobs in the Philippines that are almost the exclusive milieu of the novice workers, under-educated, and mentally-deficient in other places require a college degree here. Just like money, that piece of paper isn’t worth as much when everyone can easily have one.