Answer sheet
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In a booming country like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with the national agenda pressures and the targets set by its visionary leaders’, education is a top priority. Aiming to be among the top 20 ranking in The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and 15th in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) by 2021, is no small ambition, and this has pushed everyone involved in education to improve or be left behind.

The latest PISA results show that the UAE outperformed the other participating Arab countries in the three subjects, however, the overall scores were not really uplifting. The country moved up one level in Math and dropped two levels in both science and reading. The new ranking in Math, Science, and Reading are 47, 46, and 48 respectively. Although these results may seem disappointing, it is important to note that many countries which historically performed well in these tests, experienced a decline in their scores in 2015, nevertheless, this decline still saw these countries outperforming the UAE.

PISA, which is often described as the test of destiny and the nightmare for many low-performing schools, should be treated differently. Schools must change policies and provide a long-term improvement plan that includes all stakeholder to put everyone on the right track. This assessment should be introduced to all teachers, students, and parents and should be aligned to internal instruction. Simply put preparation for PISA and fulfilling the requirements of the curriculum should dovetail nicely together.

Informational PISA tests require fast reading and comprehension, to answer questions in a given timeframe and the ability to scan these texts to answer the right questions on time is a challenge for our ESL learners. When analyzing PISA samples, we can find questions that target the higher level of Bloom’s taxonomy. Factual information is given in a real life problem context so the student can apply these facts to solve the problem by suggesting the most appropriate solutions. So “study more to score more” is definitely not the case here.

So what must schools do?

The good results cannot come overnight. If we start the journey today, then we are expecting another three to five years to show a tangible improvement. Improving PISA scores requires a paradigm shift in teaching and assessing. Assessment is the keyword. Schools must stop the traditional memory tests and provide a major modification in the questioning levels and styles. Train students to use alternative assessment strategies; such as self-assessment and providing narrative feedback in addition to the quantitative scores. These will give students a clearer idea of where they stand and where they want to go.

Schools must provide qualified trained teaching staff that is committed and can run with the vision to provide consistent learning habits. Moreover, there is a need for more Student-centered lessons that address the needs and interests of each student. Developing and assessing students’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills including problem-solving, analysis, and creativity are other major factors that should be considered. Transfer the learning responsibility to students and support their metacognitive skills and capacity to set their goals and reflect constructively on their own learning.

The system of providing last minute test preparations for students as these externals tests approach, is not going to work and has it has been proven ineffective over time. The key is to start early, focus on the skills and not the test content and also ensure that students are fully aware that the skills they are gaining are for more than just test preparation, they are for life.

By Rania Amaireh