Outside Shanghai, China Fails to Ace PISA Test
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2016-12-08 08:43:16

China is no longer the world leader in educational achievement, new figures from a global ranking system suggest.

Once revered for its chart-topping results in science, mathematics, and reading according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), China’s grades have slipped from first across the board to 10th, 6th, and 27th, respectively.

Announced Tuesday, the results have cast a shadow on China’s exemplary performance in 2009 and 2012. But Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, an education think tank, told Sixth Tone that he believes the different outcome does not mean that China’s education has gotten worse; rather, he said the PISA score for 2015 reflects how some local governments are less interested in teaching students how to ace a standardized test.

Up until 2015, only young people from Shanghai took the PISA exam, a triennial international survey that evaluates education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. Last year, students from the provinces of Jiangsu and Guangdong and the municipalities of Beijing and Shanghai participated in the two-hour test.

“Shanghai scored high on PISA in 2012, but this was largely due to the local government’s emphasis on the test,” Xiong said. “If the education department turns the test into a priority for schools, students will be required to put more effort into preparing.”

China’s high scores have attracted international attention in years past. A 2014 report from the World Bank attributed the success of Shanghai’s education to quality of teaching, and in the same year 60 Chinese math teachers were flown from Shanghai to the U.K. to impart their wisdom on educators there. In July of this year, the British government announced further plans to introduce mathematics teaching techniques based on methods used in Chinese classrooms.

At the same time, many educators within China are moving in the opposite pedagogic direction, said Xiong. The PISA rankings only look at students’ abilities as test-takers, while failing to measure other qualities often neglected in Chinese education. Scoring well on China’s grueling college entrance exam is every student’s ultimate goal; consequently, the country’s education system has long been criticized for prioritizing test results over practical knowledge and ability.

Chinese educators have been experimenting with ways to reform the exam-oriented education system, according to Xiong. “[They] focus more on developing students’ personalities, creativity, and critical thinking abilities, rather than concentrating solely on the acquisition of knowledge,” he said. “We are trying to eliminate the score-and-ranking system in schools, but the obsession with international rankings like PISA is pulling in the opposite direction.”

PISA is an initiative of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an intergovernmental organization of 35 member countries that aims to evaluate the skills and knowledge of students worldwide. In 2015 over half a million 15-year-olds from 72 countries and economies took part in the two-hour test.

(Header image: Students attend class at a middle school in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Sept. 15, 2011. VCG)