Slovak pupils lag behind in reading and science

SLOVAK students are lagging behind their peers in reading and in scientific literacy according to a recently published OECD study. The results in reading literacy, the main focus of the current study, have alarmed many parents and educators and the country’s Education Ministry is promising to introduce changes that will lead to improved scores.

SLOVAK students are lagging behind their peers in reading and in scientific literacy according to a recently published OECD study. The results in reading literacy, the main focus of the current study, have alarmed many parents and educators and the country’s Education Ministry is promising to introduce changes that will lead to improved scores.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a tri-annual survey of 15-year-old students conducted in 30 countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), as well as in 35 collaborating countries, designed to assess “the extent to which students near the end of compulsory education have acquired the knowledge and skills essential in everyday life”, the OECD states on its website. The first study was conducted in 2000.

Generally, pupils are tested in three domains: reading, mathematics and scientific literacy but in each three-year cycle one domain is studied more carefully than the others. The 2009 PISA study focused on reading comprehension.

Below-average reading

It was the reading comprehension scores that rang alarm bells at Slovak schools and put the noses of bureaucrats at the Education Ministry to the grindstone to develop strategies for improving the skills of those graduating from Slovak primary schools.

The average score achieved by the Slovak students in the reading part of the test was 477 points, at the edge of the second and third levels of the six used in the study to group students according to their performance. Level six is the best group of students and the first level is the lowest-performance level – the so-called ‘risk group’ – so Slovak students were clearly below the OECD average.

“The positive thing is that the proportion of Slovak pupils who placed in the lowest-performance category, the so-called ‘risk group’, decreased in comparison with previous years,” Romana Kanovská, the head of the National Institute of Certified Measurements of Education (NUCEM), told The Slovak Spectator. While 24.9 percent of Slovak pupils were placed in the risk group in the 2003 survey, and 27.8 percent in 2006, PISA 2009 revealed that the number had dropped to 22.3 percent, Kanovská noted.

The reading comprehension results placed Slovak students in the shared ranking of 25-29 out of the 34 OECD countries and in the shared 32-37 ranking among all 65 of the surveyed countries.

Slovakia has little to be proud of within the Visegrad Group since it placed lowest among the four countries even though the Czech Republic was only slightly better with an average of 478 points, one point higher than Slovakia. Though both these two countries fell below the OECD average, Hungarian students achieved a better ranking at a shared place of 13-22, still below the OECD average, while Polish students performed the best among the V4 with a shared ranking of 8-17 derived from an average of 500 points, above the OECD average.

The PISA 2009 results revealed that pupils who spend at least 30 minutes a day reading for fun, out of their own interest, are better at reading tests compared to those who don’t read for fun at all. According to Kanovská, the difference between the former and the latter is as many as 41 points.

“However, the truth in most countries is that increased time spent reading for fun – one to two hours a day, or over two hours a day – doesn’t improve performance any more,” she explained.

The PISA 2009 evaluation also demonstrated that performance in reading is closely connected with pupils’ use of meta-cognitive strategies: understand and remember information, and summarise information.

“Pupils who are aware of these strategies and can use them when working with the text, achieve higher performance than those who do not master them,” Kanovská said.

The pupils who said they read online materials are much more skilled readers that those who said they do not read online. In Slovakia, the difference between the two groups was 47 points, Kanovská noted.

According to the PISA 2009 profile analysis, generally speaking, those pupils who frequently read all kinds of texts are the most skilled readers.

Teaching methods criticised

The performance of Slovak pupils in PISA 2009 testing reflects the level and state of the education system in Slovakia, Kanovská said, adding that systemic steps need to be taken in order to tackle the current, unsatisfactory situation.

The Education Ministry conceded that the results of the study are not very positive for Slovakia.

“That is why NUCEM was assigned the task of analysing the results of the PISA study and comparing them with the previous evaluations,” the Education Ministry’s press department told The Slovak Spectator when asked if timely solutions will be found to change the poor results.

The ministry added that NUCEM, along with the departments of regional education, have been requested to prepare and present proposals to reform the education system “with an aim to achieve results comparable with the results of other countries that were more successful in the international survey”.

Education Minister Eugen Jurzyca, a nominee of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union party (SDKÚ), told journalists that the ministry is working to alter the methods used at Slovak schools to teach reading but warned that such changes will require time. He specifically criticised the primary method currently used that requires children to read texts aloud in class. The minister said that when reading aloud children do not understand or remember what they have actually read.

“It’s not just an economic tragedy, but also a human one,” Jurzyca said, as quoted by the TASR newswire, noting that problems with reading can complicate not only one’s working life but also one’s private life.

Jurzyca partially blamed the poor results on missing textbooks, stating that some Slovak students have not had the appropriate textbook for three consecutive school years, TASR wrote.

Maths satisfactory

Slovak students did not fare much better in scientific literacy than in reading, with a score of 490 points placing them in level three, below the OECD average of 501 points.

An area which gives some optimism to Slovak teachers and education experts is mathematics. Slovak students placed at the OECD average with a score of 497 points. This represented a positive change compared to 2006 when Slovakia fell short of the OECD average. In the PISA 2009 ranking for mathematics, Slovak students occupied the shared 13-22 ranking among the 34 OECD countries and the shared 32-37 ranking among all 65 participating countries.

Mathematics was the only area where students from Slovakia ranked best among the Visegrad Group countries, with students from Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary lagging a few spots lower but still around the OECD average.

What is PISA?

The PISA programme tests students on their ability to use the knowledge they gain at school in real life situations rather than how well they master a specific school curriculum. Factors that might influence their test performance and their potential for lifelong learning are also explored in a questionnaire in which they are asked about their approaches to learning and their social backgrounds. The organisational structures of the students’ schools are also considered based on a questionnaire completed by school principals, the OECD wrote about its study methods.

In addition to the background questionnaire, students in each tested country complete paper-and-pencil tests with both multiple choice and open-ended answers in each of the academic areas.

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