OECD PISA Debate: Who Is Cheating Who?

As evidenced by the new OECD PISA results, the dramatic ascent of the emerging nations in education and skills reflect the broader new deal in global innovation.

“China is cheating the world student rankings system,” lamented the recent Time magazine. Held every three years, the 2012 results of the OECD’s global PISA exams showed the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong came first and third, respectively.

In the global exam that evaluates 15-year-old students’ reading, science and math skills, Chinese students appear to be superior while American students continued to underperform.  “Enough is enough,” complained the venerable Time. “Beijing must supply national data to assessors and not simply the results of a small minority of elite students.”

Shanghai is not China, just as New York City is not the entire United States. However, the PISA results do indicate that students in the U.S. and Europe are falling behind their counterparts in China and emerging Asia.

What’s even more intriguing is that old prejudices persist – even against PISA’s hard-data evidence.

Who is cheating who?

“Whenever an American or European wins an Olympic gold medal, we cheer them as heroes,” OECD’s education chief and special advisor Andreas Schleicher said recently. “When a Chinese does, the first reflect 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.”

In other words, there is a temptation to argue not only that a Chinese did not win the PISA gold medal, but that he/she could not. Therefore, the only rational explanation could be drugs, or savage exercise. In both cases, the outcome is deemed either the result of evil drug dealers or evil tiger parents.

As Schleicher and his colleagues have patiently explained in public, the Chinese have not been cheating in PISA. Instead, it seems that many educational and economic policy authorities in the West are cheating themselves.

Typically, Time ignored the PISA 2012 Technical Background Annex, which is a boring, but necessary read because it shows that no “cheating” was involved.

However, other critics in the West claim that perhaps resident internal migrants might not have been covered by Shanghai’s PISA sample. In other words, perhaps the urban Chinese did not cheat, but surely their migrant counterparts did!

True, Shanghai, like many other emerging megacities, is still developing its education system and the PISA 2012 covered only 79% of the 15-year-olds in Shanghai. That, however, is not exceptional. Despite its long record in high-school education, even the U.S. sample covered less than 90% of its 15-year-olds. And the same goes for other advanced nations. Further, it is also possible that that these excluded in the West might have pulled down the average performance.

Then, there are those who argue that, well, maybe the Chinese don’t cheat, and maybe even the migrant kids don’t cheat, but basic reading, math or sciences are not so relevant in an era when it’s the advanced, specialized knowledge that really matters. Nevertheless, the reality is that globalization spares the least those whose education and skills are poor – and rewards most those who excel in these basic categories.

In many advanced nations, students usually blamed everyone else but themselves, as the PISA results also suggest. In contrast, the students in Shanghai believed that if they work hard and trust their teachers, they will succeed.

Long-run trends

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide study by the OECD in member and non-member nations. Developed from 1997, the first PISA assessments were started in 2000.

These global exams, however, rest on a history of international school studies that were first launched in the late 1950s.

In 2000, Finland excelled in all three generic categories, followed by other Nordic countries, the Oceania duo Australia and New Zealand, Germany and the Netherlands, while Asia was represented by South Korea and Japan.

By 2009, Shanghai, the top-5 ranks in math were dominated by Asia: Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan. The rise of Asian countries was also reflected in sciences and reading in which Shanghai excelled.

In the most recent PISA assessment, Shanghai dominates math, sciences and reading. It is followed by Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. Of the old advanced-countries, only Finland, Japan, Canada and Ireland remain in the top-10 lists.

Meanwhile, new transitional and emerging-country players have joined in these rankings, including Macau, Vietnam, Poland, and Estonia. In turn, others follow in their footprints. Slovenian students leave behind both the French and the British. Lithuanian students’ science performance beats that of Norwegians, Italians and Swedes.  Vietnamese students excel in reading over French and the American students.

Today, prosperity is seen to be based on productivity, which rests on innovation. The rise of China and emerging Asia in education and skills is an inherent part of the far broader new deal in global innovation.

Only a few years ago, leading policymakers and senior executives in the West believed that China, along with other emerging markets, would remain the “factory of the world” for years to come, and India its “back-office.” It was a convenient fantasy – but that’s all it ever was.

Innovation builds on specialized knowledge, which rests on development, applied and basic research. In turn, the latter build on education and skills, that is, reading, math and sciences.

What we are witnessing is the steady, relative erosion of student skills in advanced economies, coupled by a gradual ascent of students’ skills in emerging and developing economies.

South China Morning Post published a slightly shorter version of Dr Steinbock’s commentary on Dec 18, 2013.

One Response to "OECD PISA Debate: Who Is Cheating Who?"

  1. Janie310   December 30, 2013 at 12:32 am

    It’s very popular now for mainstream media to be biased against all things Chinese. So it’s definitely bold to publish an article like this, which tells the truth even when it won’t be widely accepted.