An international assessment of global education made public recently reported that less than a quarter of Filipino students reached the minimum level of proficiency in mathematics, reading, and science in 2022. Much like the assessment results for 2018, the Philippines was said to be performing worse than the global average in these three subjects.

Filipino students were among the weakest globally in math, science, and reading last year, according to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA evaluates the literacy of 15-year-olds in formal schooling. The assessment is done periodically. The 2022 evaluation involved 81 countries. PISA is conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

In the 2018 PISA ranking, the Philippines was reported to have ranked lowest in reading comprehension and second-lowest in mathematics and science. In 2022, Filipinos were ranked sixth-lowest in mathematics and reading, and third-lowest in science. The 2022 PISA test results showed only 16% of Filipino students have basic or baseline proficiency in mathematics, only 24% have basic reading proficiency, and only 23% have basic proficiency in science.

“In the Philippines, the share of low performers is larger among boys (86%) than among girls (82%) in mathematics,” a news report quoted PISA as also reporting. And, more boys scored lower than girls in reading, with 82% of male students scoring below level-2 proficiency in reading compared to 71% of girls.

These assessments from 2018 and 2022 should be a wake-up call for all those with an interest in improving Philippine education. Whatever reforms have been undertaken to date should be reviewed and reassessed for their effectiveness. Some experts claim that it takes at least a decade to see the positive effects of any major change in curriculum.

In 2018, I took a position against completely removing tuition payments in state colleges and universities. I believed in the argument that this could do more harm than good in the long run, as it would make the entry to state colleges more competitive. And that this competitiveness would benefit the rich and better-educated students more than poorer graduates.

Back then, I wrote that without tuition, states colleges and universities would have limited funding to improve faculty and facilities. Schools would also have to rely more on grants and donations to maintain service quality. These financing concerns have become more alarming given the PISA results in 2018 and 2022.

For sure, many if not most of the students that are part of the 16% with basic proficiency in mathematics, 24% with basic reading proficiency, and 23% with basic proficiency belong to the A-B economic segment — those from wealthier families with access to more expensive schools. So, with even the curriculum seemingly benefiting them more than poor students in public schools, the rich continue to enjoy the edge in competing for access to state-funded colleges and universities.

I also noted previously that free education at the tertiary level pressures the National Government to subsidize public education through higher taxes and fees, at the expense of other public services. And the pressure will go up as the population grows. The cost of education is borne by all taxpayers.

With a system where the sustainability of the “free” education program depends on fiscal balance, then any development with adverse implications on state finances will also have negative consequences on state-sponsored education. A situation can arise where some state colleges will have to limit enrollment if not shut down because the government lacks money.

I have been told that many smaller private schools have closed in recent years, after having lost students and teachers to the public school system. Dwindling enrollment, a cap on tuition increases, and higher taxes have been resulting in more closures. Perhaps soon enough one will have to go to an expensive school that only the rich can afford, or to a public school, or not go to school at all.

The burden of curriculum development is also with the government. And judging from the 2018 and 2022 PISA results, there is little doubt that the current system is not working well. If less than a quarter of students have basic proficiency in reading, math, and science, then obviously there is a problem, and a big one at that.

Addressing concerns with curriculum and financing go hand in hand. Curriculum involves quality, while financing involves access. More important, one without the other still makes the education system deficient. There should be ways to urgently arrest the decline in quality. There is no point in making education more accessible if the system will just churn out poor graduates.

Graduates must be equipped with the basic proficiencies required to secure gainful employment. Otherwise, the school system will just produce graduates that are ill-fitted or insufficiently educated for available jobs. In the end, the public investment in educating them will not pay off.

At this point, we need more data, more research, and more studies that can help policymakers make informed decisions on curriculum development, teacher training, and facilities improvement, among others. We need experts to study the situation and tell us where we should invest and what we should improve. We cannot simply wait another five years for the expected gains, if any, from the K-12 program. At this point, the education system is in dire need of repair.


Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council