No parent is ever happy to read the words "unprecedented drop in performance" on their child's school report card. Nor does any parent or pupil need to be reminded that an education can be a passport to a bright future.
So, while individual assessments cannot foretell a trend clearly showing a dip in basic academic prowess, a newly released international report on student assessment says just that: performance is down at a level unseen before.
Pupils aged 15 anywhere in the world are less likely to be proficient in three core disciplines (maths, reading and science) than those tested a decade ago, according to the report by Pisa, the Programme for International Student Assessment.
Teenagers around the world are struggling with the core disciplines. This does not mean all teenagers, but still far too many for such findings to not be contemplated seriously and measures taken immediately to improve them – especially in countries that fared poorest, including those in the Middle East.
Last year, close to 700,000 pupils from 81 countries took the Pisa test. The average performance fell by 10 score points in reading, compared to 2018 and by almost 15 score points in mathematics, which is equivalent to three-quarters of a year's worth of learning. A degree of parental alarm that leads to remedial action rather than chastisement would not be out of place.
It is well known that Covid-19 fractured the global education system. It caused especially severe disruptions in countries and communities that were already at a disadvantage, resulting in millions of pupils having to leave the school system altogether. But the pandemic also affected pupils in developed countries, who were privileged enough to continue lessons and attend class virtually. Since schools closed in March 2020, a combined 2 trillion hours of in-person schooling were lost among students, according to Unicef. As evident in the Pisa report, some of the more damaging ripple effects of that distance education are becoming clear only now.
It is then the responsibility of parents and educators to push a course correction to ensure that specific academic weaknesses are identified and rectified. Education systems, from ministries to schools, need to support that effort. That could mean supplementary coaching or encouraging teenagers to read more, and perhaps also trying to get a reasonable distance between adolescents and their devices and social media – no easy task, as adults in charge know all too well. It may take time but the process must begin for parents and teachers to ensure that sharp drops in performance are made up for.
Not doing so would have a number of fallouts both on the student and more widely. For one, it would impede a part of a key UN Sustainable Development Goal – of ensuring inclusive and equitable "quality" education for all. Schools and parents together must focus on enhancing the part that stresses quality. It is, after all, what a good education implies.
Areas that teenagers are flailing in ought to be strengthened before they even reach college and become employable. Not doing so would limit their growth, opportunities and the progress that they should be able to make in life.
Allowing pupils to merely get by and graduate with an average to poor grasp of core subjects is unwise. Those in particularly vulnerable situations, such as the teenagers in Gaza, are not counted in the Pisa assessment, but it is safe to assume their education standards are greatly regressing. That tomorrow's workforce should have a less than desirable grasp of foundational concepts does not bode well for any country's economy. It does not have to come to that because it is an issue that can be addressed and fixed much sooner.