News: PISA 2012 highlights deteriorating education performance in Malaysia

Malaysia's declining performance in the PISA study raises concern. Photo:
Malaysia’s declining performance in the PISA study raises concern. Photo:

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The PISA examines the scholastic performance of 15-year-old pupils in mathematics, science and reading. According to the 2012 PISA report published last year, Malaysia was ranked 52nd out of 65 countries. Malaysia obtained a reading score of only 398, significantly lower than the average point of 396 and a drop from the previous score of 414 achieved in the previous PISA 2009 report. In Mathematics, Malaysia did improve from the previous assessment with 412 points (compared to 404 in 2009), although this is still below the average score of 421 points. For scientific literacy, Malaysians scored 420 points, which is again below the average score of 501 points and a decline from the previous score of 422 in 2009. It is clear from the recent PISA report that Malaysia’s performance was not only below the OECD average, but in areas such as science and reading, there was a deterioration in performance compared the previous assessment.

The poor performance in the latest PISA study points towards a number of key problems with the Malaysian education system and raises the concerns of many Malaysians. Member of Parliament Lim Kit Siang stated that Malaysia’s deplorable performance in the recent PISA study indicates an urgent need for education transformation. He also added that the transformation should involve achieving educational excellence for all students, not only a privileged few. Education lobbyists such as Parents Action Group for Education (PAGE) blame the drop in performance on inconsistencies within the current education policies and a lack on emphasis on English teaching. Penang Institute, the public policy think-tank of the state government of Penang, pointed out the problems with hastily executed short term policies, policies focusing on economic outcomes rather than incorporating other important social objective, and the overly centralised education system at the federal level among many others.

Several initiatives from both governmental and non-governmental bodies have been made to improve the Malaysian education standard. To tackle the declining performance of Malaysian students in the international rankings, a special task force was established in February 2012. It comprises various divisions in the ministry, agencies and experts. One of its main responsibilities is to conduct strategic planning and analysis of Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) and PISA results to determine the most effective measures to improve students’ performance in relevant domains. In addition, the government has recently conducted an extensive review of the education system resulting in the current Education Blueprint that outlines specific strategies to improve it. On the non-governmental side, organisations such as Teach for Malaysia have been established to improve the education system by employing strategies to reduce national educational inequity. These not-for-profit organisations are run by volunteers and work alongside the government to tackle pressing educational issues.

Malaysia’s disappointing performance on a global scale should be a wake-up call to address our declining standards in education. We have been significantly outperformed by our neighbours, most notably Singapore, which snagged second place in the recent PISA ranking.  For the action plans to be successful, both governmental and non-governmental bodies must receive the support of students and parents. Setting high education standards is necessary if Malaysia is to achieve its goal of becoming a high-income nation. If all the key players execute their roles effectively, it is possible for Malaysia to be not only one of the top countries in international education rankings, but also a high-income country in the near future.


  1. Student Performance (PISA 2012) for Malaysia
  2. PISA 2012 Results
  3. PISA 2009 Results
  4. “PISA: Malaysia up in maths, down in science and reading” – The Malay Mail
  5. “Improving International Education Rankings” – New Straits Times
  6. “Why the huge discrepancy between PMR and Pisa maths failure rates, asks DAP” – The Malaysian Insider
  7. “Penang Institute: Lacking a consistent vision for educational reform” – MalaysiaKini
  8. “Our Model for Change” – Teach for Malaysia
  9. Malaysian Education Blueprint 2013-2025 – Malaysian Ministry of Education