Under the Spell

Well it didn’t take long for the other shoe to fall.

The recent Ordinary National Educational Test (O-Net) in Thai language contained what could have been a bolt from the blue for the Thai schooling system.  Instead it turned out to be a bolt that ever more firmly fixes Thai education into authoritarian irrelevance.

Grade 6 test-takers were recently asked to do what the Thai education system very rarely asks any school student to do in an exam – compose a series of written words such that they express a coherent meaning.  They do get told to do this in class from time to time.  But it is clearly not considered an important part of education since normally ‘it’s not on the test’.

Rather than asking students to express themselves in written form, Thai tests are almost exclusively focussed on that far more valuable life lesson– guessing the right answer from an artificial fixed set of choices, only one of which (you hope) is correct.  I mean, life’s always like that, isn’t it?  (Answer Yes or No.)

The Ministry of Education suddenly decided enough written language incompetence was enough and introduced a ‘subjective essay test’ in Thai language.  And with a make-or-break 20% of the grade riding on it.

Even better, Education Minister Dr Teerakiat Jareonsettasin claimed that the test was ‘designed to assess if pupils can write answers and read for main ideas’ and to ‘evaluate a student’s analytical capacity’.  Just the sort of ability that university teachers have for years been crying out for.

We maybe should have seen the warning signs. In the same report the Minister was ‘looking forward to higher scores in all subjects’.  By subjecting students to a form of testing they had never before experienced? And which tested a higher order of skills than had ever been expected of them?

Alas, the results failed to meet the Minister’s fond hopes.

‘NIETS Director Sampan Panpruk said NIETS found that many Grade 6 students failed to write proper and formal Thai in their recent essay test.  “We've seen many Thai misspellings …” he said. “Some students even used Thai slang.” … Mr Sampan said his examiners also found a number of students used words from their regional dialects in the test.’

Er, OK, but what happened to ‘evaluating a student’s analytical capacity’, which was touted as the whole point of the exercise? This has nothing to do with spelling, slang or non-standard dialects.

Take, for example, spelling, which is right up the alley of the narrow-minded, I-know-best authoritarians that seem to thrive in regimented education systems.  There is a clear correct form and it is dictated by a central authority, normally a state-sanctioned body styled on the Académie française.

And it bears no correlation whatsoever with intelligence, wisdom or the ability to write.  Shakespeare couldn’t even spell his own name with any consistency.

‘For example, instead of writing Tor Thaharn and Ro Ruea in the Thai word Sak [cutting in front], they wrote Sor So in the Thai word Sak which is wrong,’ tut-tuts Director Sampan.  And I should explain for those who have never enjoyed the intricacies of Thai spelling, that there are in fact 5 ways of spelling the sound ‘s’.  And if we are talking about a ‘t’ sound at the end of a word, then the choices balloon to 16 (including 4 of the letters that represent a ‘s’ at the beginning of a word).

So spelling Thai, as with other languages, becomes something of a minefield that is best negotiated with a good memory, rather than any ‘analytical capacity’. Unfortunately, most people think the Thai education system is already grossly overbalanced toward the memorization end of the spectrum.

So surprise, surprise, the ground-breaking essay test of ‘analytical capacity’ has quickly reverted to yet another memory test and one that is biased in favour of those children whose native language is Bangkok Thai, since they will not be tempted into dialect words.

So why was there the sudden loss of interest in real writing ability and its replacement with an obsession on more trivial matters like spelling?

Because it’s easier to mark, is why.

‘Subjective’ tests, like the O-Net essays, require a well-trained cadre of markers and a system of constant quality control.  Exactly the things that are hard to find in the Thai education system.  But checking spelling?  Mindless martinets and dedicated disciplinarians will be quite adequate to the task.

And Thai schools have plenty of those.