Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Asian students dominate global exam; Are the Chinese cheating in PISA or are we cheating ourselves?

Memento: In this file photo, parents take pictures of their children outside a high school in Beijing after they finished their national college exams. — AP

AS a ninth-grader, Shanghai’s Li Sixin spent more than three hours on homework a night and took tutorials in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry on the weekends.

When she was tapped to take an exam last year given to half a million students around the world, Sixin breezed through it. “I felt the test was just easy,” said Sixin, who was a student at Shanghai Wenlai Middle School at the time and now attends high school.

The long hours which focused on schoolwork — and a heavy emphasis on test-taking skills — help explain why young students like Sixin in China’s financial hub once again dominated an international test for 15-year-olds called the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

Students from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan — all from Asia — were right behind. In the wealthy city of Shanghai, where affluent families can afford to pay for tutors, the results are not representative of China overall, although they are ranked as a group alongside national averages for countries such as the United States and Japan.

Still, they are indicative of education trends in China and elsewhere in Asia — societies where test results determine entrance into prestigious universities and often one’s eventual career path.

Shanghai scored an average of 613 on Maths, as compared with the nearest rival Singapore (573), and the global average of 494. Hong Kong ranked third in Maths, scoring 561, while Japan was ranked seventh and scored 536. The test is given every three years.

In China, educators say hard work is key to their students’ impressive showing. “They listen carefully in the class and do their homework,” said Bai Bing, the headmaster of Sixin’s school, where about 40 students were chosen to take the global test.

Still, Chinese educational experts say the results are at most partial and covers up shortcomings in creating well-rounded, critical thinking individuals. “This should not be considered a pride for us because overall, it still measures one’s test-taking ability. You can have the best answer for a theoretical model but can you build a factory on a test paper?” asked Xiong Binqi, a Shanghai-based scholar on education.

“The biggest criticism is that China’s education has sacrificed everything else for test scores, such as life skills, character building, mental health, and physical health,” said Xiong.

“Shanghai is an exception, and it is by no means representative of China,” said Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal at the High School Attached to Tsinghua University in Beijing. “It’s an international city where its residents pay great attention to education and where there are many universities.”

Affluent Shanghai parents annually spend an average of 6,000 yuan (RM3,190) on English and Math tutors and 9,600 yuan (RM5,100) on weekend lessons.

Shanghai Normal University president Zhang Minxuan said Pisa does not measure students’ social abilities, physical health and aesthetics, and he cautioned against extrapolating to the rest of the country.

“Shanghai students’ top placement in Pisa is no proof of equal development of education in China,” he said, as reported by Shanghai Education News. “There’s no denying, China’s education still has a long way to go.”

By Didi Tang — AP
  
Are the Chinese cheating in PISA or are we cheating ourselves?

Andreas Schleicher Andreas Schleicher

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 seem to be parallels to this in education. Only hours after results from the latest PISA assessment 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. Nor did they speak with the experts who had drawn the samples or with the international auditors who had carefully reviewed and validated the sample for Shanghai and those of other countries.

Others were quick to suggest that resident internal migrants might not be covered by Shanghai's PISA sample, because years ago those migrants wouldn't have had access to Shanghai's schools. But, like many things in China, that has long changed and, as described by PISA, resident migrants were covered by the PISA samples in exactly the way they are covered in other countries and education systems. Still, it seems to be easier to cling to old stereotypes than keep up with changes on the ground (or to read the PISA report).

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 per cent of the 15-year-olds in Shanghai. But that is far from unique. Even the United States, the country with the longest track record of universal high-school education, covered less than 90 per cent of its 15-year-olds in PISA – and it didn't include Puerto Rico in its PISA sample, 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. They have been carefully designed and validated to be fit for purpose in collaboration with the world's leading experts, and the tests are administered under strict and internationally comparable conditions. Anyone who really wants to find out can review the underlying data.

Short of arguments about methodology, some people turn to dismissing Shanghai's strong performance by saying that Shanghai's students are only good on the kind of tasks that are easy to teach and easy to test, and that those things are losing in relevance because they are also the kind of things that are easy to digitise, automate and outsource. But while the latter is true, the former is not. Consider this: Only 2 per cent of American 15-year-olds and 3 per cent of European ones reach the highest level of math performance in PISA, demonstrating that they can conceptualise, generalise and use math based on their investigations and apply their knowledge in novel contexts. In Shanghai it is over 30 per cent. Educators in Shanghai have simply understood that the world economy will pay an ever-rising premium on excellence and no longer value people for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know.

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. The results are very different for Shanghai. Students there believe they will succeed if they try hard and they trust their teachers to help them succeed. That tells us a lot about school education. And guess which of these two countries keeps improving and which is not? The fact that students in some countries consistently believe that achievement is mainly a product of hard work, rather than inherited intelligence, suggests that education and its social context can make a difference in instilling the values that foster success in education.

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 the Russian Federation have advanced to the average of the industrialised 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 didn't change their culture, or the composition of their population, nor did they fire their teachers. They 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.
The world has become indifferent to tradition and past reputations, unforgiving of frailty and ignorant of custom or practice. 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. PISA can help to make that happen.

Andreas Schleicher is deputy director for Education and Skills, and special adviser on education policy to the OECD's Secretary General.

In response to criticisms and questions regarding the validity of high scores achieved by 15-year-olds from Shanghai, China, in the recent PISA assessment, he posted this article to the OECD's education blog http://oecdeducationtoday.blogspot.fr/.

Sources: The Sydney Morning Herald

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