China – or part of it – at the head of the class . . .
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has released its latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, a triennial ‘report card’ on the reading, math, and science skills of the world’s 15 year olds. Since the first PISA in 2000, East Asian jurisdictions have ranked at or near the top. This year’s results were no exception: a conglomeration of two of China’s largest cities – Beijing and Shanghai – and two of its most economically developed provinces – Jiangsu and Zhejiang – outperformed their peers in 73 countries in all three subjects. Singapore, Macao, and Hong Kong were also in the top five for nearly all categories. Canada ranked sixth in reading, eighth in science, and twelfth in math.
Critics and defenders . . .
PISA has had its fair share of critics. A common complaint is that it does not capture a fuller range of capabilities. However, the recent round of testing included two additional assessments, one on financial literacy and the other on global competence. The results will be released sometime in 2020. Another criticism has been directed at China’s partial and selective participation. In that regard the OECD points out that the Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Zhejiang group (or similarly selective groupings used in previous years) is by no means representative of the whole country. However, it does point out that the average per-capita income of this area, while lower than the OECD average, is closer to that of the other participating countries.
More than just a number . . .
PISA’s supporters say the results that make the headlines often miss the point, which is not to promote competition. Rather, the intention is to identify high-performing education systems that other countries can learn from. For many years, observers suggested that the common denominator among the top performers was cultural, since many of the top-ranked societies were Confucian. However, Canada’s appearance in the top 10, as well as strong performances by Finland and Estonia, suggest that the key ingredient may be sound government policy and investments in education.