DUBAI // Children at public schools in Dubai and the Northern Emirates are learning neither English or Arabic to an acceptable standard, and most struggle to meet the writing and spelling requirements of the national curriculum.
The results of the UAE National Assessment Programme (UAENAP) tests, conducted in November and released yesterday, also show that boys are achieving lower results than girls.
The study of more than 40,000 pupils from 285 public schools found that those in Grades 3, 5, 7 and 9 scored between 140 and 200 points in Arabic and English writing skills, with similar scores in the spelling tests. The national average score is 500.
A falling level of performance at the primary stages was what most concerned Alan Egbert, Middle East manager of the Australian Council for Educational Research, which helped to develop and administer the standardised tests in Arabic, English, mathematics and science for the Ministry of Education.
"The achievement level in the primary levels is significantly lower than expected based on the set curriculum outcomes," he said. "After Grade 5 they seem to pick up quite a bit." Mr Egbert said he was surprised at the children's underdeveloped Arabic language skills. "This is a cause of concern and needs to be addressed."
However, children have performed well in maths and science, with most achieving average scores or above.
As part of the study, a report has been draw up assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the public education system.
Humaid Mohammed Obaid al Qattami, the Minister of Education, said the findings had provided several indicators that the system needed to be revised.
“The strategy is to develop the curriculum further and improve the teaching practices at schools,” he said.
Mr Egbert said the ministry was aware of most of the issues but, based on the current findings, some short-term and long-term recommendations needed to be implemented.
“One is to focus more on writing activities in schools, which the ministry plans to do in the coming academic year.
“The other area is to develop students’ skills in key areas and that means modifying the curriculum, which is an ongoing process.”
The tests were designed to assess pupils’ performance in relation to what they have been taught, and to measure their grade-related ability and skills.
Pupils were tested on their knowledge of material they learnt the year before, and there were some higher level questions to analyse their performance level. A measurement scale was created based on the expected outcomes of the national curriculum: pupils are placed into one of five categories based on their test results. In writing, for example, the average pupil fell into a category where they could write only simple sentences and words about well-rehearsed topics.
A similar programme was developed in 2003 but scrapped. Although the results were not made public at the time, educators did reveal that pupils’ performance was three points below the desired level.
While the national results this year indicate a good overall performance, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in 2007 and the Programme for International Students Assessment (Pisa) in 2009 found Dubai public school pupils achieving below the international average in the key subjects.
Government schools in the other emirates, which took part in the Pisa tests for the first time last year, will be receiving their results later this year.
Ayesha al Marri, the director of the Ministry of Education’s assessment department, said this provides an insight into curriculum standards. “Once we receive the Pisa results we will be able to compare our standards with the international standards to check if they need to be raised.”
Reports comparing the performance of the various educational zones and schools have also been sent out. Individual pupil reports highlighting their ability in each subject will be sent to parents.
Ghassan Jarara, an English teacher at a public school, said students were not doing well in English spelling because they had few hours in the day to practise.
“All the other subjects are in Arabic for them and even at home they aren’t using it,” he said.
Mr Jarara said the problem persisted in Arabic too, because students often used colloquial terms and phrases.
“If a person is weak in their native language, it affects any other language they try to learn as well.”
The Sharjah Education Zone has started a spelling bee competition to improve the skills of students.
“But there should also be a follow-up from parents who must sit down and encourage their children to write more,” he said.
From next year, the annual assessment will be conducted in January and the ministry plans to include private schools that are following the Ministry of Education curriculum.