Published: October 27, 2015 1:00 am


Newspaper section: News


Education link-up with Cambridge must be genuine partnership 

With its students' academic performance sinking in regional rankings, Thailand should grasp the lifeline held out by a world-renowned university

Based on months of consultation and analysis of Thailand's core curriculum, teaching, school assessment and national examinations, involving Cambridge University, the Education Ministry recently announced a major reform initiative - applying the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). It also intends to introduce subjective testing to supplement multiple-choice exams. These may partially remedy the annual complaints about the state of Thailand's teaching and assessment system, particularly the O-NET (grade 12) exams and unfavourable international comparisons in education quality compared even to Laos. However, the challenges of implementation are severe.

The CEFR consists of three levels, each with two subscales - Basic (A1-A2), Independent (B1-B2), and Proficient (C1-C2) - with reading, writing, listening and speaking skills tested at every level. A1 proficiency is expected by the end of Grade 6, A2 proficiency by the end of Grade 9, and B1 proficiency by the end of Grade 12. However, the CEFR may not be sensitive enough to distinguish meaningful differences by year, meaning more subscales may be required.

The extent to which the Education Ministry is applying a Cambridge University-endorsed CEFR test is uncertain. Theoretically, Thailand's entire English language exam system could be outsourced to the relevant Cambridge unit, Cambridge English Language Assessment. If instead the exams are developed in-house by the National Institute of Educational Testing Service, the role of CELA would perhaps be relegated to checking the questions' reliability and validity and to verifying how well the test differentiates between learners and observes the CEFR band criteria.

The Education Ministry also appears keen to apply the CEFR as a test of teachers' English ability so as to obtain a benchmark data for training and also to vet teachers' suitability to replace native-speaking counterparts. This is a valid use of the CEFR as it can take a trained assessor less than a minute to accurately grade a written essay, even at a high level, and approximately 10 minutes to obtain a grade for speaking.

However, introducing the CEFR for students and teachers will be an enormous shock because Thailand's national exam system does not test writing and speaking. And, because the skills have never been tested, the majority of Thai English teachers have never been trained properly to teach them. Moreover, conversation and writing require detailed feedback as well as high student motivation. Additionally, teachers and learners need to realise that mistakes will be made during the process of acquiring these skills - a normative shift complicated by the significance of ""face"" in Thai society, where making mistakes in class can be construed as shameful and where the ""safest"" route for many teachers and students is to ask nothing and say nothing in class.

Nevertheless, applying the CEFR will finally force Thailand to address this issue, and by cracking the question of productive language skills, both teachers and students will have to start conversing throughout the grades in order to reach the higher CEFR bands.

One considerable risk is that richer parents and some teachers will collude so that teachers charge for after-hours tutoring, focusing on writing and speaking, while listening and reading form the mainstay of regular teaching. In addition, those students able to afford tutorial centres will benefit, thus widening the knowledge gap between poor and rich learners. One previous scheme to remedy this inequality of opportunity was government-sponsored tutorial centres. However, a less bureaucratic approach would be to subsidise poor students to attend private tutorial centres.

In addition, the Education Ministry also intends to apply subjective questions to Thai language assessment, starting with 20 per cent of such questions in primary-grade exams, in order to slowly phase in the new system. This is the correct approach but could take a full decade for complete implementation. Moreover, it is still unclear how Cambridge University will assist. In principle, a language test is a language test whatever the language, and communicative principles and critical thinking should apply. The issue of cultural differences in communication patterns is well understood, and Cambridge consultants could partner with expert Thai teachers and together create much-improved tests of the Thai language by guaranteeing the quality of the questions.

In fact, there is no obvious reason why Cambridge University should not be brought in to conduct ongoing quality assurance of the entire Thai national testing system. The flaws in the O-NET are well known, with two different NIETS directors recently clashing on the answer to one notorious Health Education question regarding what youngsters should do if they experience a sexual urge (the male director chose the ""play football"" option while the female one chose the ""talk to parents"" option).

Other elitist, stereotyped or ethnocentric O-NET questions in recent years have included testing knowledge of gymnastics and tennis in health and physical-education exams, with neither pursuit actually being widely enjoyed outside major urban areas; a question on the ""official"" five-step method to hand-wash clothes in rural areas in the vocational-skills section; and multiple questions on reading maps of Bangkok, quizzing how to move around the capital most efficiently. Moreover, O-NET tests have a tendency to include multiple-step questions worth only one point, partially explaining why the distribution curves for results on every O-NET subject are skewed to the bottom end.

Even with a very ""Thai"" subject such as Civic Duty and its 12 Core Values, there is a need for quality international input. Education programmes teaching morality now exist in many countries, including the UK, but assessing morality according to universal scales such as Lawrence Kohlberg's theory of moral stages of development is extremely complex. There is thus a clear need to partner with Cambridge University to assist with long-term reform of the entire education system, including core subjects like science and mathematics, so as to provide independent quality assurance that parents and industry can trust.