Shanghai likely to repeat strong results on international PISA test in December

Screen Shot 2013-11-18 at 6.34.09 AMBack in 2010, experts were stunned when 15-year olds in Shanghai, China earned the top scores in reading, math and science on the 2009 PISA exams, also known as Program for International Student Assessment. And when the 2012 results come out on Dec. 3, it seems that Shanghai may be poised to do it again, according to researchers who are familiar with the preliminary results.

Education testing experts cautioned against comparing Shanghai to an entire nation, such as Japan or the United States. The megapolis of 23 million is one of the wealthiest, most cosmopolitan cities in China. Still, low income residents are part of the sample of students who are tested*. And this year, we will be able to compare Shanghai with comparable sub-regions of other countries. (My prediction: Massachusetts does miserably compared to Shanghai).

Researchers say they are also seeing high test scores in other Chinese provinces where PISA trials are taking place, but official scores from regions outside of Shanghai won’t officially be reported until 2015. “You will be surprised at how strong some of the results are in the provinces,” said Andreas Schleicher of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the PISA tests. 

Shanghai’s replication of results, combined with strong test results in the provinces, make me want to ask this question: Does China have the best educational system in the world?

Some might dismiss the test results and say that Chinese students are good testers, but don’t necessarily have the higher order thinking skills and creativity that other education systems try to cultivate. Its national curriculum is built around exam preparation. On the other hand, China is clearly doing something right and it’s worth understanding the nuts and bolts of their system. In this write up about the Chinese educational system by the International Center for Educational Benchmarking, two things popped out at me: 1) large class sizes (50 students/class); 2) specialized teachers, who might only teach one particular class, such as “Senior Secondary 2 Physics”, but they teach it multiple times a day.

Schleicher adds that China differs from other top performing countries in that its teacher workforce isn’t drawn from the top students in Chinese society, as the teaching ranks are drawn from the top third in Japan, Finland or Singapore#. Rather, in China, the average teacher was himself an average student in high school. Instead, China boosts the professionalism of the teaching profession through constant teacher training. About 30% of a teacher’s time every year is spent on professional development.

*The children of migrant workers, who number about 9 million in Shanghai, are believed to be largely excluded from the PISA results. Migrants who don’t have Shanghai residency are not entitled to education there. But Shanghai recently relaxed its residency policies this past summer. Future tests might include migrant children

#By contrast, teachers tend to come from the bottom third in the United States.


POSTED BY Jill Barshay ON November 18, 2013

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>teachers tend to come from the bottom third in the United States

Where is the data to back up this assertion?


Has anyone looked into the widespread cheating in all these countries that score higher than students in the U.S.?

[…] Kurt Georg Kiesinger sagte weiland nach einem China-Besuch: “Ich sage nur: China, China, China!” Der Hechinger-Report will herausbekommen haben, dass nicht nur Shanghai wieder das PISA-Ranking anführt, sondern weitere chinesische Metropolen, die inoffiziell mitmachen, an der Spitze stehen. […]

Jill Barshay

@x It’s a good question. Outside experts have looked at cheating on PISA exams and I have not yet seen reports of widespread cheating that would affect a nation’s score. In China, for example, outside contractors are involved in the administering of the exams. It’s worth noting that the United States has its own cheating problems. Major testing scandals on state assessments have happened in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Texas and Washington DC. Even NYC’s top high school, Stuyvesant, was recently embroiled in a cheating scandal.


Even flawed, what a ridiculous comparison utilizing SAT scores! Just as SAT scores do not predict the “success” of ordinary citizens in their careers and in the workplace, so to they are not in any way, shape, or form a predictor of a successful teacher! For years, everyone has known that the SAT omits many factors that contribute to a person’s success–teamwork, communication, persistence, common sense, creativity, etc., etc.

Also, don’t be so quick to use Atlanta as an example of “cheating teachers”. Everyone in the area knows that this was a scam, cooked up by certain leaders to not only promote charter schools but also to replace board of education members by hand-chosen representatives that were not elected, as well as Teach For America candidates who have no substantive educational understanding or background! The accused have not gone to trial, and the jury is not in yet! Thankfully, the media is NOT our justice system!

Jill Barshay

@CCSSIMATH Thank you for keeping me honest with my figures. I may have thrown in that “bottom third” line too cavalierly. I found this well-researched piece in Education Next that shows in Fig. 1 that the average teacher scored below 50th percentile on the SAT. Fortunately, the scores of teachers are improving!

Jill Barshay

@ccssimath This WaPo piece explains that the “bottom third” comes from a couple McKinsey reports, each with statistical shortcomings.

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