Of all the Arab countries that have participated in the international tests for fourth and eighth graders and 15-year-olds between 2006 and 2012, Qatar has shown the most substantial and consistent improvement in each and every test, be it in reading, math, science, or math reasoning and at all grade levels. The increase in the average scores has ranged from 35 points, or 10 percent, in the science proficiency score in the Progress in International Reading Literacy test, to 117 points, or 40 percent, in the fourth-grade math of Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. The rise in the TIMSS scores was much higher than in the PIRLS or the Program for International Student Assessment scores, ranging between 34 percent and 40 percent. The performance of students in standardized international tests is a good indicator of the quality of K-12 education. These tests include TIMSS, which is administered to fourth and eighth graders; PIRLS, which is administered to fourth graders; and PISA, which is given to 15-year-old students. TIMSS tests student performance in math and science. PIRLS measures reading literacy; and PISA assesses students’ level of acquisition of key knowledge and skills that are essential for the participation of citizens in modern societies. In 2012, PISA focused on math reasoning, with limited assessment of proficiency in science, reading, problem-solving, and financial literacy.
The average score for each Arab country that has participated in these tests since 1995 is still below international average. Although there are significant variations among Arab countries, none has so far attained the international average of 500, with Dubai serving as benchmark in some tests and achieving the highest score.
Arab countries that participated in TIMSS 2011, PIRLS 2011 or PISA 2012 may be classified into three groups according to the average score of their students in these tests. One group performed better than in 2006 or 2007; another maintained about the same performance; and a third group performed more poorly than in previous years. Of all the 11 Arab countries that participated in TIMSS 2011, the six countries that participated in PIRLS 2011 and the four in PISA 2012, Qatar stands out for achieving the most substantial rise in scores in every test between 2006 or 2007 and 2011 or 2012.
In TIMSS 2007, students in Qatar had the lowest or second lowest average scores among Arab countries and ranked close to the bottom internationally in both math and science. In the 2011 test in math for fourth graders, Qatar jumped up to the third rank among nine Arab countries. For the eighth grade test in math, it reached the fourth rank among 11 Arab countries. In TIMSS 2011 science test, fourth-grade Qataris occupied the fourth rank among Arabs, while the eighth graders occupied the eighth rank, with only a one point difference from the two countries that tied for seventh rank.
Average Scores of Eighth-Grade Students from Arab Countries in Mathematics, TIMSS, 2007 and 2011
This remarkable improvement must be the outcome of a successful implementation of education reform. Qatar must be doing something right about its education system. It must have introduced changes that led to hiking its scores in international tests over a relatively short period of time – four to six years. These changes are demonstrated in numerous indicators of various aspects of the school organization and climate, which were measured in PISA 2012.
Factors that are conducive to better learning outcomes in K-12 schools include improvement of the status, academic preparation and professional development of teachers; establishment of a quality assurance system and good governance; involvement of parents in school affairs; and introduction of creative extra-curricular activities. Qatar’s data on these factors shows that the country’s education system is undergoing quick and solid reform relative to other Arab states and to the benchmark countries of PISA 2012. These countries comprise the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which include Israel, Turkey, countries from Europe, North America, South America and two Asian nations.
Research shows that school attendance is essential for student learning. According to PISA 2012, one of the indicators of student engagement with and at school is the percentage of students who reported having skipped classes or days of school, which was 29 percent in Qatar. Although Qatar’s figure did not reach the lower OECD average of 25 percent, it was lower than the comparable figures for all three other Arab countries that participated in PISA.
Student-centered methods of teaching are more conducive to better learning than teacher-centered methods. Teachers’ student orientation at school reveals that in Qatar, a larger percentage of teachers than in OECD asked students to work in small groups to come up with joint solutions to a problem or task; and to help plan classroom activities or topics. Another critical factor for effective teaching is the nature of teachers’ academic preparation and certification. Among the Arab countries that participated in PISA, Qatar had the highest percentage of teachers who hold university degrees and who were certified to teach. However, the percentage of certified teachers in Qatar was still not high enough in 2012 to reach that of the OECD average.
Teacher pre-service training is also necessary to prepare quality teachers. Qatar is among the countries that require this training. After recruitment, teachers need continuous professional development to stay abreast of changes in their disciplines and to upgrade their teaching methods. In this area, Qatar is also doing very well. About 75 percent of its math teachers, the second highest percentage among all participating countries, reported having attended a professional development program during the three months that preceded the PISA survey.
Schools that offer creative extra-curricular activities such as a school play or musical; art club or other art activities develop a school climate that promotes student creativity, which is a highly valued student skill for the twenty-first century. Qatari schools ranked higher on this variable than the three other Arab participating countries and also higher than the OECD average.
One important component of school climate is parental involvement in school-related activities such as parents’ discussion of child’s behavior or academic progress with teacher; volunteering in extra-curricular activities; and participating in school government and fundraising. Again, Qatar had the highest score among the participating Arab countries on almost all listed parental involvement activities, a score that is also higher than the OECD average.
As part of good governance, student achievement data are posted publicly and used for accountability purposes in many countries. Almost half the students in Qatar study in schools that have adopted this practice. The comparable percentages for the other Arab participating countries in PISA were lower, as was the OECD average. Furthermore, quality assurance in schools requires a variety of practices including teacher mentoring; monitoring of math teachers’ practice through tests, peer reviews and observation; internal/self-evaluation; and written feedback from students regarding lessons, teachers, and learning resources. All of these were more prevalent in Qatar than in other Arab countries.
The results of TIMSS, PIRLS and PISA undoubtedly show substantial, rapid improvement in the quality of K-12 education in Qatar, which can be attributed to a host of reform measures in the education system. However, the country has a long way to go and reform changes should be stable and consolidated over time. If the pace and extent of reform is sustained and the decisionmakers remain committed to quality education through continuous funding and administrative support, Qatar can outpace other Arab countries, and achieve higher scores in the next international tests of math, science, and reading.
Dr. Muhammad Faour is a senior associate at Carnegie Middle East Center, Beirut, Lebanon.