The Arab region has again come out near the bottom in an international comparison of the abilities of 15-year-olds in reading, math and science.
The just released results of the latest round of the Programme for International Student Assessment, better known as PISA, found five Arab countries—Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar and Saudi Arabia—in the bottom one-third among the 79 participating countries.
The other Arab country that participated, the United Arab Emirates, scored slightly above those five. And Qatar, while ranking poorly in global terms, has made strong improvement in its students’ scores.
The results bode poorly, educators believe, for prospects of creating a well-educated citizenry, accustomed to thinking critically, that in turn might improve economies and strengthen civil society and democratic governance in the region.
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Among the regions of the world, the Arab region “probably has the longest way to go to improve,” said Andreas Schleicher, who created and directs the PISA program. The region’s young people “are quite good at repeating what they’ve learned but not at participating in tasks that require students to think creatively.” (See a related article, “Looking at Arab Education Through PISA Tests.”)
He added, as an example, that the least affluent 10 percent of students in China and Vietnam did better in the assessments than the most privileged 10 percent of students in Saudi Arabia.
Strong Improvement in Qatar
There was a bright spot: Contrary to the tendency of most participating countries to see their results largely unchanged over the past decade, one Arab nation, Qatar, has shown strong improvement, though from a low starting point. In all three subjects, reading, mathematics and science, the share of low-achieving Qatari students shrank, and the share of top-performing students increased.
PISA says about one-third of that improvement was due to an increase in the number of immigrant students in Qatar, who, unlike immigrants in many other countries, tended to score better than local-born students.
But most of the improvement appears to be due to Qatar’s substantial efforts to strengthen its education system. The small oil-and-gas-rich nation has invested heavily in improving teaching and in curricular development, says Dakmara Georgescu, a program specialist at the Beirut-based UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in the Arab States.