In countries with a transitional economy, students have the best grasp of facts. They do less well in terms of putting those facts to use. They do worst of all when they are faced with unexpected situations. We know about this problem, and Latvia has developed a fundamentally new standard for basic education.
Do school standards conform to real life?
We live in an age of globalization, and comparisons among countries and the regions of the world are made in virtually all areas of life. It is unimaginable today that policies might be developed without international comparative information. Education is no exception to this rule.
Ever since the 1960s, the world’s developed countries have been intensive participants in international projects that are aimed at evaluating and improving the quality of education. The International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement launched massive comparative assessments of student achievements at an international level and in a very broad context.
Other organizations are now also involved in elaborating and measuring comparative indicators in the area of education. Among them are the OECD, the European Union and UNESCO. Education indicators are used for situation analyses and for the determination of educational policies in the various countries.
Latvia has taken part in nine major research projects since 1991, and this allows us to learn about the achievements of our country’s students in terms of various educational indicators. Subjects that have been covered include reading, mathematics, the natural sciences, civic education and information technologies. Latvia is represented in these projects by the Institute for Educational Research of the University of Latvia’s Faculty of Education and Psychology. The institute was asked to serve as the country’s representative by the Ministry of Education and Science.
The study “Knowledge and Skills for Life” is different from all of the others. First of all, it represents the first cycle in the new OECD Program for International Student Assessment. The countries of the OECD have promulgated a very important and extremely complex goal - measuring the extent to which schoolchildren who are near the end of their primary education are prepared for life. Secondly, the conceptual approach and instruments (tests and surveys) that are involved in the project have been designed so as to measure the ability of a student to apply school knowledge to real-life situations, not to test the things that students have learned in specific study areas.
The OECD’s invitation to Latvia, which is not a member state, to join in this program was a pleasant surprise. The organization represents the world’s most developed countries, and the demands which are associated with the study are very high, indeed. This is a very innovative conceptual approach, and in this paper I would like to provide a brief discussion of the project, as well as the results which Latvia posted in the first round of the study - between 1998 and 2001. Our country’s achievements were compared to those of 31 other countries in the world. Among them, there were 28 OECD member states.
Latvia’s 15-year-old students posted relatively low average indicators in reading, the natural sciences and mathematics, and this tells us that the Latvian education system needs to focus more on the way in which students can use knowledge in real-life situations. Here we might remember conclusions which were presented by World Bank specialists on the basis of a 1991 comparative study of educational issues at the international level (Soubbotina, T.P. and K. Sheram. Beyond Economic Growth: Meeting the Challenges of Global Development (2000)). Students in the so-called transitional countries - Hungary, Slovenia and the countries of the former USSR - have the best grasp of facts. They do less well in terms of putting those facts to use. They do worst of all when they are faced with unexpected situations. Latvia, as a former country of the Soviet Union, was represented in the study by several schools where lessons were taught in Russian.
We are aware of the situation now, and we have looked at the results of all of the comparative studies that have been done in the past. The Ministry of Education and Science has used this information to develop a fundamentally new basic education standard (1998). Its full implementation may help in improving the situation to a considerable degree. The standard is based on an approach which is similar to the OECD program - preparing students for life. We must implement these principles more quickly in the Latvian educational system.
When it comes to the results of the OECD study, it is an interesting fact that in some cases the achievements of various students within a country are more diverse than the average achievements of students from one country to the next. This means that the average results in each country are not the only indicator which is of importance. Indeed, we must focus mostly on differences in the level of achievement among students in various parts of our country.
Differences in achievements in Latvia are related to a variety of issues. Achievements are lower in rural and small-town schools. Achievements among students of the same grades are higher in high school than in elementary school. Also of statistical importance are individual factors such as gender, the socioeconomic status of a student’s family, the student’s attitude toward the learning process, etc.
The research results indicate that the quality of education in a country is closely related to that country’s economic indicators. We can say that the achievements which Latvia’s students posted in the OECD study are in line with our country’s level of economic development, at least as far as the OECD’s own criteria are concerned.
By participating in the OECD program, we are setting out the world’s best standards for our country’s education system, our ability to engage in research work, and our skills in applying the research methods which are used to provide an international and comparative evaluation of the quality of Latvia’s educational system.