In 2015, over half a million students—representing 28 million 15-year-olds in 72 countries and economies—took the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. Students were assessed in science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving and financial literacy. PISA is the most influential international assessment that provides valuable data, gives an opportunity to benchmark country's achievements, identifies strengths and weaknesses, helps design effective policies. Thus it has a unique power to trigger critics and criticism, blaming and shaming, resignations of education ministers and serious national debates on ways to move forward.
In the Former Yugoslav Republic (FYR) of Macedonia, expressing opinions and criticisms regarding PISA results has mainly taken place on social media. And although we have not yet heard directly from the Ministry of Education, I am glad that many non-education experts found this topic deserving of their time and space on Facebook and other platforms. There is a growing collection of people who believe that, when it comes to the core values of society, the voice of many has to be heard - including about the value of education for the well-being of individuals and society as a whole.
Nevertheless, the prevailing concern is not whether FYR Macedonia’s education system is serving its children well; it’s that FYR Macedonia is at the bottom of the ranking table! This is worrisome in itself, of course, but what should really concern us all is that two-thirds of 15-year- olds in FYR Macedonia are functionally illiterate in each tested subject area.
While the demand for skills has been swiftly moving away from routine, cognitive activities - towards “new economy” skills that include non-routine cognitive skills (e.g. a capacity to analyze information critically, problem-solving) and non-cognitive skills (e.g. interpersonal skills, team work, work ethic, grit) – many young people in FYR Macedonia do not possess even the basic skills necessary to participate effectively and productively in life. This skills gap hinders not only the future job prospects of these youth, but the country’s economic competitiveness, too.
Looking through the equity lens, PISA results show that the FYR Macedonian education system is in the dark—failing to see what is genuinely needed to provide adequate support to the poor and students in rural areas. There is an uneven performance across groups. Students in urban areas perform much better than students in rural ones, and students who belong to the top income group perform the equivalent of slightly more than two school years over students who belong to the bottom income group.
FYR Macedonia has participated in international large scale assessments since 1999. Debates about the country’s performance have always focused on a comparison with other counties’ mean scores; and, after a few days, everyone - including the education authorities – have continued with business as usual. The available data was rarely used to underpin policy decisions or shape reforms. The system has operated in the dark for decades.
An in-depth analysis of the PISA data is the first step in engaging in any serious discussion on possible policy action and reforms genuinely aimed at improving education outcomes in FYR Macedonia. Thus far, most education reforms have been done without this data-rich, evidence-based step, leaving us with a system incapable of helping the majority of students attain even basic competencies.
Addressing these challenges requires the mobilization of all available expertise in the country, regardless of political or ethnic affiliation. The time is now, tomorrow may be too late. It’s time to stop operating in the dark and start learning what this data-rich system has to tell us about our education system and how to improve it.
Let’s turn the lights on!
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