Pisa: China finishes below UK in reading

Shanghai topped the international rankings in reading in Pisa 2012. But with Beijing, Jiangsu and Guangdong included with Shanghai this year, mainland China has now dropped to 27th place in the Pisa reading table, five places below the UK.

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China has lost its place as the seemingly unassailable star of world education, the latest Pisa results released this morning reveal.

Shanghai, as mainland China’s representative, had finished top in all three subject areas in both the previous two Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) studies in 2012 and 2009.

But in the latest 2015 study - with the addition of Beijing, Jiangsu, and Guangdong - the mainland Chinese entry saw all scores from the test for 15 year-olds drop and its ranking fall to 10th in science, sixth in maths, and 27th in reading – below the UK, which finished 22nd.

The results may be a surprise for some academics who last month suggested that there was no reason to expect that the performance of the new Chinese provinces would be anything less than impressive.

Professor Yong Zhao, an expert in Chinese education from the University of Oregon in the US, told TES then: “Jiangsu and Guangdong – they are pretty good provinces and won’t necessarily show much of a deviation from what China [Shanghai] has done before – especially Jiangsu. I think it is the same for Beijing.”

Christian Bokhove, a Southampton University maths education academic who has studied Pisa and its rival Timss (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), also expected the addition of extra provinces to do little to damage China’s standing in international education.

“I think they will still be high [in the tables] to be honest,” he said. “But they will not be as representative as it is in most countries. [South] Korea and Japan are more representative of Asian countries as a whole.”

According to Professor Zhao there are “certain places in China that would not do very well” in international education rankings. However last month he noted: “Overall even if you put all of China into there it would still do well compared to other countries like the UK.”

Today’s reading results suggest that the academic – a long standing critic of Pisa and China’s schools system – may have over-estimated his native country’s performance in the tests.

There was better news for the Chinese territory of Macao – which rose up the rankings in science, maths and reading. Hong Kong dropped down the table in science but finished second in both maths and reading.

However mainland China could fall even further if all its provinces were included. But in that sense China remains a special case and a potentially distorting one.

Shanghai’s Pisa stellar performance has led the UK government to do its best to emulate the city’s schools, setting up expensive teacher exchange programmes.

But if the UK also chose to only enter schools from its highest performing, most prosperous, areas into Pisa, that in itself could go some way towards closing the gap with Shanghai. 

When it comes to deciding the terms of its entry to international surveys, the country appears to be uniquely able to call the shots.

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