Are the Chinese cheating in PISA or are we cheating ourselves?

By Andreas Schleicher Source:Global Times Published: 2013-12-18 19:38:01

Illustration:Liu Rui/GT

Whenever an American or European wins an Olympic gold medal, we cheer them as heroes. When a Chinese does, the first reflex seems to be that they must have been doping; or if that's taking it too far, that it must have been the result of inhumane training. 

There seems to be parallels to this in education. Only hours after results from the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) showed Shanghai's school system leading the field, Time magazine concluded the Chinese must have been cheating. They didn't bother to read the PISA 2012 Technical Background Annex, which shows there was no cheating, whatsoever, involved.

True, like other emerging economies, Shanghai is still building its education system and not every 15-year-old makes it yet to high school. As a result of this and other factors, the PISA 2012 sample covers only 79 percent of the 15-year-olds in Shanghai.

But that is far from unique. Even the US, the country with the longest track record of universal high school education, covered less than 90 percent of its 15-year-olds in PISA and it didn't include Puerto Rico, a territory that is unlikely to have pulled up US average performance. 

International comparisons are never easy and they are never perfect. But anyone who takes a serious look at the facts and figures will concede that the samples used for PISA result in robust and internationally comparable data.

Short of arguments about methodology, some people turn to dismissing Shanghai's strong performance by saying that Shanghai's students are only good at the kind of tasks that are easy to teach and easy to test, and that those things are falling behind in relevance because they are also the kind of things that are easy to digitize, automate and outsource. But while the latter is true, the former is not.

Consider this: Only 2 percent of American 15-year-olds and 3 percent of European ones reach the highest level of math performance in PISA, demonstrating that they can conceptualize, generalize and use math based on their investigations and apply their knowledge in novel contexts. In Shanghai it is over 30 percent.

PISA didn't just test what 15-year-olds know in mathematics, it also asked them what they believe makes them succeed. In many countries, students were quick to blame everyone but themselves. More than three-quarters of the students in France, an average performer on the PISA test, said the course material was simply too hard, two-thirds said the teacher did not get students interested in the material, and half said their teacher did not explain the concepts well or they were just unlucky. In Shanghai however, students believe they will succeed if they try hard and they trust their teachers to help them succeed.

And even those who claim that the relative standing of countries in PISA mainly reflects social and cultural factors must concede that educational improvement is possible. In mathematics, countries like Brazil, Turkey, Mexico or Tunisia rose from the bottom; Italy, Portugal and Russia have advanced to the average of the industrialized world or close to it; Germany and Poland rose from average to good, and Shanghai and Singapore have moved from good to great.

Indeed, of the 65 participating countries, 45 saw improvement in at least one subject area. These countries changed their education policies and practices. Learning from these countries should be our focus. We will be cheating ourselves and the children in our schools if we miss that chance.

International comparisons are never easy and they aren't perfect. But PISA shows what is possible in education, it takes away excuses from those who are complacent, and it helps countries see themselves in the mirror of the educational results and educational opportunities delivered by the world's leaders in education.

Success will go to those individuals, institutions and countries which are swift to adapt, slow to complain and open to change. And the task for governments is to help citizens rise to this challenge.

The author is deputy director for education and skills and special advisor on education policy to the OECD's secretary general.

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