Clarissa C. David and Catherine Faith Hoggang
Much has been made of the need to strengthen the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields in Philippine colleges and universities. The Philippine Development Plan (PDP), the government’s agenda for the next six years, envisions a “globally competitive knowledge economy” where workers are in higher productivity jobs and equipped with skills for advanced-level work in engineering, science, and technology.
To help meet these targets, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) has classified tertiary programs in all sciences, mathematics, engineering, and medical fields as “priority disciplines.” In principle, resources would be streamed toward these programs, institutional capacities strengthened, and competencies of graduates and teaching faculty enhanced.
In order to participate globally as an advanced, knowledge-based economy, Filipinos need strong foundational education in the sciences and mathematics. The 2011 Department of Science and Technology’s (DOST) framework for the math and science curriculum echoes this sentiment. According to University of the Philippines National Institute for Science and Mathematics Education Department (NISMED) in 2001, math and science are indispensable tools to “develop a scientifically and technologically literate citizenry.” This is important not only to those headed toward college, but also for those who will be employed in many kinds of vocational and technical work.
Numerous international surveys, however, find the quality of science and math education in the Philippines wanting. According to the 2017 World Economic Forum Executive Opinion Survey, the Philippines ranked 76th out of 137 participating countries in the quality of math and science education. In Southeast Asia, the Philippines belonged to the upper half, above Thailand (83), Vietnam (85), Lao PDR (88), and Cambodia (111), but was well below Malaysia (16), Indonesia (40), and Singapore (1).
Colleges and universities will only be able to deliver on national targets for a knowledge economy if the incoming high school students have good quality math and science education. Building blocks of advanced studies in these areas rely on solid foundational knowledge of math and the various core physical and natural sciences such as physics, biology, and chemistry.
The national picture: Below mastery for math and science
Each year the Department of Education (DepEd) administers the National Achievement Test (NAT) to third and sixth graders in elementary school, and fourth year high school students. The test covers multiple subjects. An overall score is calculated for each student, which is then averaged for each school, comprising the Mean Percentage Score (MPS).
The MPS is classified into five levels of mastery: low mastery (15 to 34); average mastery (35 to 65); moving toward mastery (66 to 85); closely approximating mastery (86 to 95); and mastered (96 to 100). Unlike class grades, a score below 75 does not necessarily equate to “failing” the NAT. These scores are used broadly as targets and measures of improvement of schools and the overall education system.
From school years 2012 to 2014 the overall MPS of Grade 3, Grade 6, and fourth year students enrolled in public schools have been on an upward trend (Table 1), although still below the average 75 MPS target set by the country by 2015 as part of the Education For All (EFA) initiative aligned with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
It was only in 2014 that the overall average of Grade 6 pupils neared the national target, with a MPS of 74.51. Despite the increase across the years, fourth year high school students continued to record a low overall average of 56.24 compared to other school levels. Until the full rollout of the K-12, program these NAT scores included the math and science subjects separately.
Table 1. Average Overall Mean Percentage Scores of Public Schools, 2012-2014
Source: Authors’ calculations from DepEd data
Subject-specific scores reveal that while overall student performance in the early grades is equal across subjects, and nearing master levels, it declines as they get older. In high school, while there is slight improvement in overall NAT scores in the inclusive years of the dataset provided by DepEd, the math and science scores remain low.
This means that public high schools on average failed to get students to the point of correctly answering half of the science and math test questions in the exam. The target improvement for the system, according to the PDP document, is that 74 percent of elementary pupils and 20 percent of junior high students must be at least in the categories of “Moving toward mastery,” “Closely approximating mastery,” or “Mastered” by 2022. In 2015, 14.88 percent of high school students are at “Low mastery” level, the PDP target is to reduce this to 10 percent.
As of 2014, only 5 percent of public schools achieved mastery level in science and 25 percent in math. Science instruction and facilities clearly need attention and improvement. According to 2013 data, the science laboratory to student ratio stood at 1:1,438; the vast majority of students has no access at all to a laboratory.
The levels of achievement exhibit wide disparity across provinces. Figure 1 shows the regional averages for each subject, and Figure 2 shows the top performing and bottom performing provinces by science and math NAT scores.
Figure 1. Regional Average MPS of in Math, Science and Other Subjects, 2012-2014
High school MPS for science nationally are the lowest among all test subjects, 48, and for math it is a higher, 59, both at the average mastery level. Of greater concern at the moment are the regional disparities. Science scores range from a low of 37 in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) to a high of 60 in CARAGA.
ARMM provinces with the lowest science scores in 2014 include Sulu (29), Maguindanao (37), and Tawi-tawi (37). The highest scoring provinces in CARAGA are Agusan del Sur (66), Surigao del Norte (64), and Agusan del Norte (61).
In math CARAGA also scores the highest, 75 percent. At the bottom is Region IV-A with the lowest scores in Quezon (35), Laguna (41), and Cavite (40). High schools in the National Capital Region (NCR) had a below average science MPS of 47 and math score of 56.
Further research is necessary to determine indicators of high performance and whether there are programmatic responses that would allow targeted interventions to shore up performance in these subjects, as well as more in-depth observational research to understand the teaching challenges more fully.
Figure 2. Regional Average MPS of Grade 3, Grade 6, and 4th year in Mathematics, Science, 2014
Figure 3. Ten Highest and Lowest Scoring Provinces in NAT for Math and Science, 2014
These scores only reflect public schools. But on average the NAT tends to be higher in public high schools than in private schools, a trend that started a few years ago. There are “science high schools” around the country run by the DepEd or the DOST. These schools score much better in both subjects than the rest of the country, but their students comprise less than 1 percent of the high school student population. DepEd science high schools score higher in math (80) than regular schools (58), and higher in science (66) than regular schools (48). In the overall NAT results, science high schools also score much higher on average (74) than the national average (56).
We highlight the high school scores because these reflect the general level of math and science proficiency of students that hope to enter college. The more selective colleges screen students through an entrance exam, especially state colleges and universities where tuition is now free. Those top students, many coming from the highest performing schools and who can afford college, will gain from more advanced math and science instruction at the tertiary level. Meanwhile, the vast majority of high school graduates will end their math and science education in high school, and many of these students will have achieved a low level of mastery.
Upskilling a nation requires coordinated efforts of the entire span of educational training with job creation and demand projections in the employment and economic sectors. Improving the country’s capacity in the STEM courses will require strong preparation in elementary and high school, but is this in place? Good quality math and science education in the elementary and secondary levels are important not only for those who will be in college, but also for the technical and vocational fields. Strategic interventions, including targeted ones in disadvantaged provinces, are needed to raise the quality of math and science education in the public and private sectors. Yet, before any of this can be properly planned, more recent and comprehensive data from the education agencies and in-depth system-wide research will be necessary to guide an evidence-based intervention design.
The authors thank the Department of Education for data, and the UP Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs EIDR System Grant C06-013 for funding support to Clarissa C. David who is a professor at the College of Mass Communication. Catherine Hoggang is a research assistant for the EIDR project and a graduate of Political Science from the Ateneo de Manila University.
You may download a pdf version of the policy note here.
National Economic and Development Authority. 2017. Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022. http://pdp.neda.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/PDP-2017-2022-07-20-2017.pdf (accessed on January 5, 2018).
Schwab, K. 2016. The Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017. World Economic Forum. http://www3.weforum.org/docs/GCR2016-2017/05FullReport/TheGlobalCompetitivenessReport2016-2017_FINAL.pdf (accessed on December 18, 2017).
Science Education Institute, Department of Science and Technology. and University of the Philippines National Institute for Science and Mathematics Education Development. 2011. Mathematics Framework for Philippine Science Education. http://www.sei.dost.gov.ph/images/downloads/publ/sei_mathbasic.pdf (accessed on January 5, 2018).
———. 2011. Science Framework for Philippine Science Education. http://www.sei.dost.gov.ph/images/downloads/publ/sei_scibasic.pdf (accessed on January 5, 2018).
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