Education Standards in the Philippines: A Bar So Low You Can Trip Over It (Part One)

Too young to realise the raw deal they're about to get.

Too young to realise the raw deal they're about to get.

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.

About bkritz

I'm a writer, and I do things my own way. That might sound cool to you, unless you're one of the people who actually knows me, in which case you're probably shaking your head in exasperation at the depth of that understatement.
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26 Responses to Education Standards in the Philippines: A Bar So Low You Can Trip Over It (Part One)

  1. benign0 says:

    Back in the excellent State University where I studied engineering, the joke going around (because our college was consistently whipped in the Board Exam rankings), was that the other schools teach their students to top the Board, while ours teaches us how to be good engineers.

    Like everything else in the Philippines, we are good at going through the motions but do not grasp the spirit behind what we do. We do democracy, but don’t get its point. We fancy ourselves as “westernised” but don’t really get the profound underlying philosophies of what Western Civilisation is really all about. And we graduate our young through the school system but don’t really see the real point of why they are being put through the system to begin with.

    It’s ironic, because I see bank tellers here in Australia, for example, who have no more than a secondary or technical school diploma but have far broader job descriptions, are familiar with such a dizzying array of banking products and the vast permutations and combinations of their options, and are able to rotate over the course of a workday across various roles (sometimes at the window serving customers, sometimes in the backroom concluding transactions).

    • not sure if this is relevant but it seems to me children in the united states and maybe other western countries as well become independent much earlier. perhaps, benk can confirm this.

      is it true that by the time they reach 18 american children are basically expected to move out of their parents’ home and fend for themselves? because if it is, maybe it has something to do with this early onset of independence among american kids.

      i’m thinking maybe young filipinos need to be put in such a situation if only to give them some sort of a headstart in their journey to maturity and, perhaps, success. of course, it wouldn’t hurt to maintain some sort of long distance guidance and the occasional support from the parents. just a thought.

      on the topic of formal education, would anyone know which country has the best educational system? can we not copy their system?

      • Franc says:

        With all due respect to “BetterPhilippines”, it seems to me that familial independence and how early (or late) one achieves it matters not at all. True, American kids may be encouraged to be more independent at what would seem an earlier age than their Filipino contemporaries. But, other cultures, particularly the Latin ones (Italians, Latinos, etc) tend to show patterns similar, in varying degrees, to what young Filipinos are used to. For Italians, to take one example, tradition has dictated that young people live with their families until they get married.

        I submit that, instead of gaining independence “earlier” than their Filipino counterparts, young people of Western cultures are introduced, encouraged and immersed in the concepts of Self Determination and Individuality — concepts almost anathema in Filipino culture where the family takes precedence over everything (almost to the point of making the concepts of “Self-Awareness & -Determination” and “Family” mutually exclusive from each other instead of being parts of the same continuum). It isn’t so much a matter of being economically and/or familially independent as much as being allowed (and more importantly, allowing one’s self) to grow and learn in ways that would be most productive to that individual, and thence, to society.

        I’m just saying…

      • to franc,

        no problem. wasn’t even sure about what i was saying in the first place and was just exploring ideas and theories.

        anyway, i’m intrigued by this statement by benK :

        “I do think the American environment and the education system, for all its problems, does prepare kids much better for independence; whether they take the first opportunity or not is guided by other things.”

        i am interested to know what it is exactly about the American environment and education system that makes this possible. i think it’s worth identifying those positive factors and examining them if they can be duplicated here.

      • BenK says:

        I don’t know if it can be duplicated here, because it is a difference in fundamental ideals. American kids are taught to explore and to question things. American kids are taught (albeit sometimes to a degree that might not be realistic or healthy for everyone) that personal achievements and opportunity are a matter of choice. The family and cultural environment of individuals moderates those ideals to an extent, certainly, but not so much as here, where kids are taught not to question authority (elders, the Church, etc.), and accept as fact everything those authorities tell them.

  2. BenK says:

    I’d say it’s tough to make a completely accurate generalisation about independence and maturity among American youth, because the different cultural groups tend to go their own way on that sort of thing. At the risk of making stereotypes, I would describe Asians, Latinos, and African-Americans as being much more reluctant to cut the cord than those of European descent. There are also regional differences; Westerners tend to be a little more independent than Southerners, for example. And then of course there are always exceptions all over the place.

    I do think the American environment and the education system, for all its problems, does prepare kids much better for independence; whether they take the first opportunity or not is guided by other things.

  3. Pingback: Education Standards in the Philippines: The Mar Roxas Solution (Part Two) | The Anti Pinoy :)

  4. GabbyD says:

    “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. ”

    what kind of remedial attention do you think will the Deped levy?

    i have it on good authority that the deped doesn’t link the school’s NAT performance to school budgets, or school inputs.

  5. BenK says:

    School budgets, no, because there are legal constraints on that. Other inputs, yes. Teacher transfers/promotions, yes. This is what I hear from public school teachers and administrators. But I think it’s also important to note that not even this aspect of the program works very well; I talked to a couple people in the district office, and they couldn’t even really define the significance or expected outcomes of the NAT program. Mar Roxas may have been grand-standing a bit, but he really did ask a meaningful question: why do they give these tests, anyway? It’s a flawed concept to begin with, and then to make matters worse, it’s not even administered as designed.

    • GabbyD says:

      hhmmm… my understanding of DepEd policy is your latter point: the program “doesn’t work very well”, because there is no program. that is, that there is no systematic DepEd program to link NAT scores to transfers and promotions.

      so i think that the analogy of NAT to the US federal program (no child left behind) is flawed. we don’t have a program in place.

      so, what is the use of NAT? i’m not sure — at the very least its a diagnostic tool to test whether they (schools) are hitting their targets about what the kids should know when they graduate.

      now this is what “rote learning” is by definition (you should know X when you graduate). you may dislike the idea of rote learning, or of “teaching to the test”.

      but diagnostic tests always have this feature/defect. in which case, what you are against are diagnostic tests of ALL kinds. (abolish the NSAT, the SAT, LSAT, GRE, etc)

      personally, i think thats a non-starter of a proposition.

  6. BenK says:

    This is not really about whether or not I think diagnostic tests are problematic, but rather the evidence from the exercise here and its closest corrollary in the States. And the point is, the DepEd means to have a program in place, but they are failing miserably at it. So your assessment that my analogy is flawed is itself flawed, because you are suggesting that what, the DepEd intentionally has a testing program with no discernible purpose?

    For the record, I have seen enough evidence over the years to convince me – at least until someone provides better evidence to the contrary – that, indeed, almost all diagnostic testing is flawed. However, the SAT (which is quickly falling out of favor anyway), NSAT, LSAT, GRE, ACT, etc. do not fit the same pattern or purpose of achievement testing. “Teaching to the test” for those examinations takes up a very small proportion of the students’ class or other learning time, and more importantly, those are tests that are administered to, at the youngest, third-year high school students, and are based on the skills of problem-solving, cognitive thinking, and creativity, at least to a much more significant degree, than tests like the NAT. So it is a poor comparison.

    • GabbyD says:

      ” And the point is, the DepEd means to have a program in place, but they are failing miserably at it. So your assessment that my analogy is flawed is itself flawed, because you are suggesting that what, the DepEd intentionally has a testing program with no discernible purpose?”

      indeed, this is my contention — i’m almost certain there is no program in place. hence there is nothing to “fail” at. (i’ll check this to be sure).

      what is the “discernable” purpose of NAT if 1) its not a prerequisite for HS, or 2) the deped doesnt use it to allocate resources?

      that is a great question. at the very least they want to use it to know “how schools are doing” — i.e. a diagnostic test.

      the next obvious question — surely these tests should help the deped improve education outcomes, why don’t they use it as such. isn’t this the purpose of diagnosis — to come up with improvements?

      as far as i know, they are trying, but yeah, i don’t think they have a program in place (which is NOT a good sign for the Deped). also, NAT might be better used if it were linked to money or inputs. again, this is assuming that we all like the notion of giving “diagnostic tests” at the primary level.

      i think the downside of diagnostic tests are a function of program design, and is not an inexorable consequence of diagnostic tests per se.

      as to the other point, yup — my only point was that all tests are “teacheable”. but i concede to ur argument that this college/grad school aptitude tests aren’t as “problematic” (again assuming we dislike teaching to the test) as primary school diagnostic tests.

      • BenK says:

        See, that’s just it, and I guess that’s what Mar Roxas was trying to wrap his head around, too. If there is no clear point to the testing, why do they even bother? Now, I have been assuming, based on what little information the DepEd cares to share, that they do indeed have a reason, they’re just doing a really bad job. For all I know, you could be closer to the truth, and they’re just doing it for the sake of doing it. Either way, the DepEd is not exactly covering themselves in glory on this one.

        If they’re going to give achievement tests, they should be student-oriented and not school-oriented. Find out if the kid has learned anything, or if he is having a problem that needs closer attention, or if he is exceptionally gifted. Give the test without prior preparation, and design the test to make students use their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. If the DepEd wants to look at aggregates of individual scores to assess schools, there’s no reason they can’t do that, but in the meantime, the focus will be on the educational progress and needs of the student. That kind of test would work, and there’s no reason they can’t do it, except for the likely logjam of students that would be held back when all the shortcomings in the existing curriculum are exposed.

      • BongV says:


        I think it used to be student-oriented up to the early 80s when we still had NCEE. Flunking NCEE then, meant repeating high school or saying goodbye to a college degree.


        Also, there is a need to review the current goals of Philippine public education. Looking back at the roots of the Philippine system – the American public school system – can provide insights on the role of education in a democracy.

        The purpose of public education has been affected by major changes in American society. These include economic transformations and the expansion of civil rights, which have had enormous effects on what goes on in the classroom. Added to these forces are others, including population growth, immigration, inner-city poverty, and school violence. Whenever there has been major social or economic change, the goals that were established for public education have changed. Over time, the following have all been goals of public education:

        * To prepare children for citizenship
        * To cultivate a skilled workforce
        * To teach cultural literacy
        * To prepare students for college
        * To help students become critical thinkers
        * To help students compete in a global marketplace

        Metrics can then be established for each goal.
        Finally, come up with a balanced scorecard

        I presume the DepEd has a balanced scorecard?

      • BenK says:

        I’m a big fan of balanced scorecards. If the DepEd actually has one, though, they’re not saying.

  7. Pinoy Buzz says:

    Hi guys! Great post!

    Now that I’ve made Better Philippines smirk, I’d like to log in my reaction to the post.

    I think the biggest problem in our country is that most Filipinos are poor and this is where all of the other problems arise. Most Filipinos are poor, not because they lack money — they lack something more crucial, OPTIONS. They lack options because they lack education.

    Our people lack education because we lack schools, teachers, books, and everything else you ought to find in an institution of learning. Compounding these inadequacies are health and nutrition issues that are common among public school children.

    One wonders how can we lack so many things in our public education system when the government is supposed to be setting aside the largest chunk of the budget to fund the education system? Of course, we know the answer to that — when a school building (two classrooms with 1 CR) can be built for P600,000, the DepEd spends P1,000,000.

    Anyway, to solve this problem of chronic inadequacies, I think Senate Bill 2402 or the Health and Education Acceleration Bill is pointed in the right direction. The bill was filed by Senator Gordon and it lays out a detailed plan of how to bail out our education system.

    One of the first thing’s that gets people’s attention as far as the bill is concerned is that it imposes a windfall tax on the text messaging revenues of cellphone companies and this is where discussion of the bill has hit a snag.

    On one hand, we have undernourished, sickly school children barely getting the education they need to create better options for themselves, and on the other, we have cellphone companies that earn around P2,000,0000,000 a day from text messaging — perhaps less, but certainly above 1 Billion. I was actually at a hearing where Mon Isberto groaned and practically threw a fit in trying to defend his company’s windfall earnings.

    Anyway, beyond the sourcing of the funds, the bill lays out a detailed proposal of how to bring out public education to standards that match those of Singapore, Malaysia, and Hongkong.

    First, the bill proposes the creation of the HEAP corporation with a board composed of members of the academe and parents — which will administer the funds of the program. The Board will be composed of officials from Ateneo, UP, La Salle, and perhaps UST; it will also have people from Parent’s Teachers Associations, etcetera. The DepEd Secretary will be in the board, but probably not as Chairman.

    In its first year, the HEAP corporation will supply all the inadequacies of the public school system. It will build all the classrooms, hire teachers and principals, provide computers and lab equipment, etcetera. It will also fund a feeding program and provide of doctors and nurses as well as vaccinations and medicines for free.

    In its succeeding years, the program will shift from providing classrooms (assuming that there are already sufficient numbers of classrooms) to providing better training for teachers and establishing scholarships for college students.

    At or near the end of the 5 year implementation period of the program, it will send 10,000 Filipino students to study in Ivy League universities.

    I don’t think I’ve described all the details of the bill here, but if you want to read it first before critiquing, here’s the link to a copy of the HEAP bill..!.pdf

  8. Renato Pacifico says:


    Boxing is education-optional, academically-not-supported whose skills are honed in prison rumble and street fighting. Yet, political dignitaries went out of their way to go to Vegas to support Manny Pacquiao. When Pacquiao came home with the belt he was met like it was V-Day in Manhattan confetti and confetti everywhere. Even idiot peryodistas croon and splash article dedicated to Pacquiao.

    whereas, poor, educator Pinaflorida, CNN-man-of-the-year didn’t even get a peepsqueak from idiot peryodistas who claimed to be tliteraties and 4th estaters. The idiot peryodistas are perpetuating ignorance.

    ha!ha!ha!ha1ha!ha! EDUCATIO N IS THE LAST THING IN THE MIND OF THE FILIPINOS. 1st thing is Sex and 2nd thing is boxing and third is inuman.



  9. Zadkiel says:

    I had posting time and time again:

    1. Due to the limited funds we have. Why don’t we just fund public ELEM and HS. let State U’s go fend themselves.
    2. With more fund pouring in to basic education, it would result to more facilities and infrastructures.
    3. More money to give a pay raise to Public School Teachers.

    Thus resulting for more quality education.

    • BenK says:

      That’s an interesting proposition, one that I think has some merit. I think what the argument against it probably would be is that it would reduce the opportunities for students to go to university. I’m not sure how I would respond to that argument. Any ideas?

    • ChinoF says:

      I guess this comes from the observation that education is gravely underfunded in the country. Add to that the funds being shanghied by nasty DepEd staff. Someone even told me that DepEd is the most corrupt gov’t agency in the land, because of the phantom schools and materials being cited for funds. At least your proposal Zadkiel might do for basic education… though I agree with Ben, we need more meat for specific skills. College.

  10. Zadkiel says:

    another way of doing my proposal is that:

    – we can even shorten Elementary and High School as 6 yrs. and 3 yrs. each respectively.

    – we can set another 3 yrs. is a compulsory vocational course that would be chosen by the students before college.

    – if effect only 9 years na lang would be funded by the gov’t and then 3 years vocational should be provided by the parents or other sponsors. we had already resolved the 12 yrs. basic education before college which is 6 yrs elem. + 3 yrs. HS + 3yrs. compulsory vocational course. after that 12 years, only then a student can be accepted for college.

    – that 9 years you have a HS grad ready for unskilled labor. implicitly, after completing that 12 years you have people who are grads that are ready for SKILL job types.

    • BenK says:

      I wouldn’t do it that way.


      Oh, you want more? Sorry, I kind of channeled mlq3 for a moment.

      I think that is far too short a time period. Kids are immature when they leave school under the present system, and in your model you have compulsory education ending at about age 15. Do not kid yourself that the number of students not continuing past that point will not grow tremendously if funding is largely removed — that’s a fact of life, or at least is as long as all other things remain equal. The one positive to it is that provided the education in those nine years was solid, the smaller number that would be continuing on would be better quality students. But it’s going to leave a lot of deserving but financially-incapable kids out in the cold, AND at an age where they are legally not employable under standards rules, and most likely not emotionally equipped to be so.

      I would add two years to your nine: 6 elementary, 3 of basic secondary education, and then 2 of either vocational education or college-preparatory (subject to the student’s preference AND a legitimate assessment test), and make all of that compulsory. Take pre-grade one (nursery and kindergarten) and college out of the hands of DepEd, and let private institutions or province/municipality/NGO-supported schools handle it. Still going to be a lot fewer students able to go to college, but college will actually mean something, instead of being the rough equivalent of a high school course in the US or Western Europe.

      And fire everyone connected with DepEd immediately, with prejudice, and recruit administrators from among the large number of foreign education experts that are already in this country, or Pinoys who have extensive training and work experience in education systems overseas.

      • Zadkiel says:

        1. Yes! I’m expecting that reply: “its too short” . My posts however are incomplete, as we can still fund the 3 year-vocational course on selected areas.

        Now! if you’re 18-yrs-old w/ employable skills then you can work. for those who want to pursue college while working, just in case you have no parents/sponsor to enroll you on college.

        2. Also you were saying that “it’s going to leave a lot of deserving but financially-incapable kids out in the cold,” the same thing is happening already today even if there is funding for college. remember that the norm here is 16-yrs-old after HS graduation.

        There are lots of scholarships today that are available but not availed due to the fact that most of them (students) are not deserving (poor quality). We have this law for study-now-pay-later-plan. Also there are scholarships for Science and Technology.

        We can also enable a law that would require private schools to adopt poor but deserving students, though they may not be honor student but they can finish the course unscathed; lets 10%-20% of the total populace. or maybe a College Voucher system to compensate for the TAX Exemptions derived by these private schools, according to existing Philippine laws that it is a form of subsidy. In short these “subsidy” must be translated to enroll poor-and-deserving-students.

        3. If we can simplify the proposal, 12 years basic education and the gov’t funding is merely focused on them. then we have a better figthing chance.

      • BenK says:

        Seems we differ mainly in details, which is not really a problem. I’d characterize the fundamental components of the solution as:

        1. Narrow the focus of government funding and administration to the basic (11-12 year) education period.
        2. Improve the curriculum.
        3. Improve the quality of the students (by improving the curriculum, making testing more accountable & determinant, etc.).
        4. Realign resources outside the government budget to more effectively provide continuing education opportunities.

  11. Zadkiel says:

    yeah! but that’s just 1 variation. your solutions are just basically the same as mine in general.

    #1 – we want basic 12 year education. but my “advanced” version injects vocational/skills subjects during those 12 years. i’m just using the japanese model of 6 years elem. , 3 years middle school, and 3 years upper HS.

    but thats not the whole picture. the easiest way for transition is keep the 6yrs elem and 4 yrs HS. and make the 2 yr vocational school compulsary before going to college.

    i hope by this time any variation be somewhat understood.

    #2&#3 – implied. its a given. since time immemorial those 2 concerns has been raised many times. In my studies, I had experienced 4 to 5 revisions in the curriculum.

    #4 – yes! after telling you my platforms, err…. my proposal (but no one the Phil. Gov’t would bother anyway) of focusing the DepEd budget for the 12 basic years that would inevitably lead to your motherhood statement, err i mean conclusion/solution.

  12. Pingback: From F to A: What P-Noy Needs to do to Succeed

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