Pakistan participated in the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) for the first time in 2019. The country’s participation marks a significant step towards achieving the government’s vision of promoting fair and quality education, and making students more competitive with their counterparts abroad. The TIMSS 2019 results show important weaknesses in student learning in both mathematics and science. The country ranked second to last among the 64 countries participating in the study. Most fourth-grade students did not reach minimum learning levels. It is as if most students were at the bottom of a mountain, with a long road ahead to climb to the top.
To understand low academic performance, it is important to put results into a broader context. Pakistan faces many social and economic challenges, and is among the lowest income countries participating in TIMSS 2019. Higher income countries tend to do better than lower income countries, and Pakistan is not the exception. The challenges highlighted in this report are not unique to Pakistan, but are shared by many other countries around the world.
TIMSS 2019 offers important insights on the quality and equity of education in Pakistan, and shed light on the road to follow to climb to the top of the mountain.
• Pakistan ranked second to last in both mathematics and natural sciences among all 64 countries participating in TIMSS 2019. The performance of Pakistani fourth graders was much lower than the one of England, Turkey, or Iran. Pakistani students only scored significantly higher than their peers in the Philippines.
• Approximately three out of four students in Pakistan did not reach minimum learning levels in mathematics and natural sciences. Fourth graders seem to lack basic mathematics knowledge and skills, and knowledge or understanding of foundational scientific concepts and facts. It is as if they were in a big plateau at the bottom of the mountain. These students are at risk of never being able to break the vicious cycle of poverty. They are at risk of not acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to complete their education, get a good job, and contribute to the social and economic development of their communities and country at large.
• On a more positive note, approximately one in four Pakistani students reached at least minimum learning levels in mathematics and natural sciences. Most of these fourth graders have some basic mathematics knowledge and skills (e.g., they can add, subtract, multiply, and divide), and some can apply their knowledge in simple situations. They have limited understanding of scientific concepts and limited knowledge of foundational science facts. These students are on their way climbing from the bottom to the top of the mountain.
• An important achievement gap exists between top and bottom performing students in Pakistan. While the top performers can apply basic knowledge in simple situations, the lowest performing cannot consistently demonstrate basic mathematical and scientific knowledge. Top performing students in Pakistan had an achievement comparable to an average performing students in Iran, Kazakhstan, or Saudi Arabia. Making steps toward a more equitable quality education will require lifting both top and bottom performing students, and to reduce the achievement gaps between them. Similar to a team of climbers in the road to the top of the mountain.
• Many factors can help to understand the low performance of Pakistani students. First, there are social and economic forces that help to explain why Pakistani students performed at the bottom of the country league table. Second, there are education related factors (e.g., school, teacher, student and parent characteristics) that help to understand why some students in Pakistan do better than others.
These factors are key to inform education policy and practice. They are like the road marks that can guide climbers to reach to the top of the mountain.
• Approximately two out of three children in Pakistan did not attend preprimary education. This was the highest proportion compared to all other 63 countries participating in TIMSS 2019. Attending preprimary education is important for children and their families. Providing universal access to quality preprimary
TRENDS IN INTERNATIONAL MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE STUDY 2019, education should be a priority for Pakistan.
• Once in primary education, fourth grade students did not seem to benefit from the most qualified teachers. First, approximately two-thirds of Pakistani students were taught by teachers who did not have a bachelor degree, even though they were required to have one in government or public schools. This proportion was much higher than in other countries. Second, a higher proportion of Pakistani students were taught by relatively inexperienced teachers. While 40% of the fourth graders were taught by teachers with less than five years of experience in Pakistan, 25% or less were taught by teachers with that level of experience in Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan or the Philippines. This may be the consequence of the prevailing practice in Pakistan of assigning teachers with more years of experience to the upper grades of primary education. This practice could be changed, so that that teachers with different levels of experience are more evenly distributed across school grades. This could allow for better in-service professional development, with more experienced teachers mentoring the development of less experienced teachers.
• Given the multicultural and linguistic background of Pakistan, TIMSS was administered in three different languages (English, Urdu, and Sindhi) that matched the language of instruction at grade 4. Nevertheless, the language of the test was never spoken at home by around a third of the Pakistani students. This was the highest proportion compared to all other 63 countries in the study. Not surprisingly, students facing difficulty understanding the language of instruction scored significantly lower than their peers in the mathematics and science tests. Efforts should be made to ensure that students can have a smooth, gradual transition from mother tongue to a second language for instruction in Pakistan.
• Nearly two-thirds of Pakistani students attended schools that place high emphasis on academic success. This proportion was much higher than most other countries, and may reflect some cultural bias in the principals’ perceptions. Nevertheless, fourth grade students attending schools that placed greater emphasis on academic success had a better performance in both mathematics and science. These findings point to the importance of promoting a culture of high
TRENDS IN INTERNATIONAL MATHEMATICS AND SCIENCE STUDY 2019
expectations in all Pakistani schools, where students are inspired by their teachers, and parents are committed to ensure that students are ready to learn.
• Approximately three in four students had parents who are very satisfied with their child’s school, a proportion relatively higher than other countries. Students whose parents were very satisfied reached higher achievement levels in both mathematics and science. These findings point to the importance of monitoring parent satisfaction and the factors behind it. Parent surveys inquiring about school leadership, pedagogy, safety and participation can be used for this purpose.
Addressing the issues identified by these surveys may increase parent satisfaction with the schools, while boosting learning among students.
• Pakistan has many challenges ahead to ensure equitable quality education for all, as aimed in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals in Education (SDG4). At this time, only approximately one-third of children in Pakistan reported having access to preprimary education (SDG 4.2.2). In primary education, approximately 25% of the students achieved minimum proficiency level in mathematics (SDG 4.1.1), and only approximately 20% in natural sciences SDG 4.7.5). In terms of gender parity (SDG 4.5.1), fewer girls had access to school compared to boys (parity index 45/55).
While boys and girls attained similar performance in mathematics, girls outperform boys in natural sciences. The goal of providing safe, non-violent learning environments can be informed by the fact that near 1 in 5 students reported being bullied every week (SDG 4.a.2). Regarding the supply of qualified teachers, approximately one-third of the students were taught by a teacher who have the minimum required qualification of a bachelor degree (SDG 4.c.1). Over 80% of the fourth-graders were taught by teachers who received in-service training in the last two years (SDG 4.c.7).