It was seven years ago that I wrote my first post on the results of the 2009 PISA test. PISA stands for Program for International Student Assessment. It is a worldwide evaluation of the scholastic performance of 15-year-old students. The very first test was administered in 2000, and Hungarian education was found wanting. Students were tested in mathematics, science, and reading. In 2003 problem-solving was added to the test. While the 2009 tests showed a marked improvement over earlier results, the 2012 results were truly abysmal. Hungarian students did worse in all three categories in comparison to their achievements three years earlier.
The Orbán government’s educational policies completely revamped the educational system, returning to the old-fashioned rote learning that earlier administrations had tried to liberalize somewhat after 2002. Liberalization was a dirty word for Fidesz politicians no matter where it occurred, and therefore practically all earlier reforms were thrown out the window. In addition, the educational structure was reorganized, with chaos ensuing. New textbooks were published in a great hurry and ended up being deficient. Despite the rush, some of the books were not available for the beginning of the school year. Lately, there has been a teacher shortage. All this has had a negative effect on public education.
In 2010, when the promising PISA results were released, Rózsa Hoffmann, whose tenure as minister of education is considered to be something of a disaster, was not happy with the good tidings. She and others in the Orbán government who had condemned the socialist-liberal governments’ policies now had to face hard facts: even their timid reform efforts had borne fruit. When the poor results of the 2013 test were released, the Orbán government was reluctant to assume any responsibility. Every time Hungary fails to shine in international rankings, the reaction is always the same: the results are either someone else’s fault or the numbers don’t reflect the true state of affairs.
The latest PISA test was not the usual math-science-reading test given every three years but a new test designed to measure “collaborative problem-solving,” where again Hungarian students did poorly. Hungary ended up #33 out of 50 with a score 472. The EU average was 500. In the region, Poland was not among the participating countries, but the Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, and Slovenia all scored better than Hungary, while only Lithuania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria scored worse.
In comparison to the earlier PISA tests, this collaborative problem-solving test proved to be the hardest for the Hungarian students. The poor standing of Hungarian students could have been predicted because we have been hearing complaints from foreign businessmen that their Hungarian employees don’t excel in teamwork situations. More importantly, most of these 15-year-olds have never had the opportunity to sit down with their classmates and figure out a problem together, so the test was undoubtedly a real challenge for them.
The trouble doesn’t lie with the students, who were faced with a test that was absolutely alien to them. The blame falls on the politicians and the educational establishment. An article appeared in Gépnarancs with a very good title: “The teachers also need PISA.” Even so-called progressive teachers admit that the great majority of their colleagues are unwilling and most likely unfit to teach in a way that would prepare their students for this kind of test.
One of Rózsa Hoffmann’s first moves was to exempt teachers’ training from the so-called Bologna system, which four years earlier, in 2006, introduced a three-cycle system of higher education (bachelor/master/doctorate). In that scheme students, after the completion of their bachelor degrees, could move on to teachers’ training on the master’s level. Hoffmann decided that this system was unsuitable for training competent teachers. So, as of September 2013, an 18-year-old boy or girl had to make a choice: either they enter a bachelor’s program or they start teachers’ training right away. Given the low prestige and the low pay of teachers, teacher’s training isn’t an attractive proposition. Students who want to teach in the first eight grades have to spend 4+1 years in school. Those who want to teach in high school must finish 5+1 years. The extra year is practice teaching. Thus, just like almost everywhere else, the best and the brightest don’t end up becoming teachers. Long gone are the days when first-rate scholars began their careers teaching in high schools. Looking at some of the problems on PISA tests, I wonder how well teachers would do on them. I tried some of the science tests and came to the conclusion that one doesn’t need a solid science background. Logical thinking is quite enough.
A major obstacle to improving the situation in education is the Hungarian government’s unwillingness to admit any shortcomings, be it in education, the economy, or anything else. An article that appeared in Origo is a perfect example of the typical government reaction. First, if the results on any given test are bad, they trot out another test on which Hungarians did splendidly. Second, they argue that a single measurement means nothing, conveniently forgetting that the other PISA test results were also very poor. Third, only 6,000 students took this test, and they were exclusively 15- or 16-year-olds. Therefore, the test “by itself cannot be considered conclusive.” The fourth “excuse” is really funny: even the European Commission thinks that “with the changes introduced, the prospects of both students and teachers have improved.” Since when does the Orbán government care about the European Commission’s opinion? Fifth, the Commission’s Education and Training Monitor 2017 pointed out that Hungary spends more on education than the European Union average. Sixth, Hungary is the only country in the EU where children must attend kindergarten from age three, and therefore, for some strange reason, we can forget about the current test scores of the 15- and 16-year-olds. Finally, none of the recent low test scores signify anything. The effects of the newly introduced reforms will not show up until 2018 or 2021. So, the present results can be ignored, and Hungary can postpone the day of reckoning.