A More Complete Measure of China?

By Sean Cavanagh — July 02, 2009 2 min read
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When American leaders publicly fret over the challenges posed by international economic and educational competition, few of the United States’ foreign rivals inspire as much consternation as China, with its burgeoning free-market system and, of course, its enormous population—1.3 billion-citizens strong. But in truth, the international community has relatively few hard facts about how China’s students measure up, because the Asian power has not had its scores released on major, high-profile international assessments, like PISA and TIMSS, as other nations have, including the United States.

But soon, a fuller picture of China could emerge, albeit incrementally.

Officials who run PISA, or the Program for International Student Assessment, expect at least one major Chinese jurisdiction, Shanghai, population 18 million, to have its test scores on that exam released in December of 2010, the next time country-by-country results on the exam are unveiled, said Andreas Schleicher, a top official with the assessment. Schleicher is the head of the indicators and analysis division of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in Paris, which oversees PISA.

That would mean Shanghai’s scores would come out as nation-by-nation results in math, science, and reading are unveiled. Schleicher, however, said it was too early to know if the Chinese municipality’s scores would be released in all subjects, or just some of them. I caught up with Schleicher at a forum for U.S. business and state leaders on international education, held in Washington, where he made a presentation about PISA trends. (Education officials from a pair of top-performing countries, Finland and Singapore, also delivered remarks, which I wrote about this week.)

In addition to Shanghai, a number of Chinese provinces have had students assessed on PISA, though they haven’t released scores. Three provinces in China have so far completed the PISA 2006 assessment; three provinces from middle China and three provinces from western China are currently undergoing the process, adhering to standard OECD procedures and technical requirements, Schleicher said in a follow-up e-mail. Hong Kong and Macau, special administrative regions of China, have taken part on PISA and released scores; Hong Kong also takes part in, and does very well on, TIMSS.

Schleicher told me he did not believe Chinese authorities’ were reluctant to release PISA results because of concerns about low performance; instead, he attributed their stance to concerns about the exam detracting from the attention schools and students place on the nation’s internal, high-stakes tests, which determine high school and college admission. In fact, Schleicher predicted that the scores from Shanghai, and, if they’re eventually put forward, Chinese provinces, could prove impressive. “We will all be surprised when the Chinese results are released, by their high performance,” Schleicher told me.

Obviously, you could argue that Shanghai is no more representative of China’s overall education system than some American behemoth, like New York or Los Angeles, is of the broader U.S. system. Even so, I’ll bet many followers of international tests—educators, economists, and the like—will be keen on any insights the PISA results can provide.

Photo: Sevans/Education Week-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.