Officials at Kyrgyzstan’s Education Ministry have little reason to celebrate this holiday season. The troubled Central Asian country ranked last in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which aims to predict and gradually improve nations’ “economic and social well-being” through regular, comparative evaluations of teenagers’ proficiency in reading, math and science.
The latest results of the PISA tests, administered since 2000 at three-year intervals to 15-year-olds in dozens of countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), were released December 7 with Kyrgyzstan coming in 65th. Its mean score suggests that high-school students in the impoverished nation lag some four and a half years behind their peers from OECD countries in terms of formal schooling and more than six years behind top-scoring Shanghai, China.
One particularly troubling result showed that more than 80 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s 15-year-olds had reading skills below Level 2, considered “a baseline level of proficiency, at which students begin to demonstrate the reading literacy competencies that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life.” Nearly 60 percent of tested students in Kyrgyzstan perform below level 1a.
This does not mean that they are illiterate, but it does mean that they do not display even the very limited range of reading skills needed for level 1a tasks [… which include] locating pieces of explicitly stated information that are rather prominent in the text, recognising a main idea in a text about a familiar topic, and recognising the connection between information in such a text and their everyday experience.
Performance in math and science was similarly poor.
Like a few other countries – namely, Bulgaria, Hungary and Panama – Kyrgyzstan showed a particularly large performance gap between urban students and those in rural schools, equivalent to at least two years of schooling.
The PISA results came just as a small group of high school teachers in Kyrgyzstan’s restive south entered a second week of striking for higher salaries. According to a December 8 report by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service:
Secondary schools teachers' average monthly salary is about $30-$40. The teachers in Bazar-Korgon are demanding $200 - $250 […] and land and allowances to build homes. On December 6, the district authorities promised each teacher in the region 10 kilograms of rice, one sack of flour, 5 kilograms of sugar, and 5 liters of vegetable oil.
The only other former Soviet Central Asian country in the PISA rankings was oil-rich Kazakhstan, which landed in 59th place. One long-time observer of the region said ruefully that Kyrgyzstan could perhaps take solace in the fact that the testing did not cover neighboring Tajikistan, as its performance would have surely been even worse.