China No. 1 on 2018 PISA: Is the country really an education powerhouse as the rankings suggest?
2020-01-03 21:00:40

“If you are an education policymaker in China, what kind of adjustment will you make to current education policies?”

Andreas Schleicher: “Learn a little less for the exam, a little more for life."


On December 3, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, testing 15-year-old students in math, reading and science every three years. And Mainland China was the big winner this time. In a total of 600,000 students from 79 countries and regions taking the exam in 2018, students in Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang (China) scored higher than the OECD and ranked No. 1 across the world.

Since its debut in 2000, the results of PISA have always been a big deal as a benchmark for basic education system evaluated by education policymakers. This December, China had its moment and regained a few minutes of spotlight for doing well on PISA. But this big win was met with resounding skepticism. Can the scores of students in B-S-J-Z(China) represent China as a whole and really suggest that the country has made significant progress in basic education reform? What kind of abilities should Chinese students improve? JMDedu interviewed Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director of Education and Skills and Division Head of PISA about his insights and interpretations with regard to China’s victory.

Chinese students regained the No.1 rank in PISA

In 2009 and 2012, only Shanghai represented the Mainland of China in PISA, ranking No. 1 in all three tested spectrums. And in 2015, students from Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Guangdong (B-S-J-G, China) was scored the tenth. While in 2018, Chinese students regained the first place when having Zhejiang replace Guangdong province which seemed to be blamed for the previous setback.

According to the chart above, students in B-S-J-Z (China) scored significantly higher than the OECD average in reading, mathematics and science, approximately 49% of students are the top performers in at least one subject (OECD Average: 16%). And only quite a few students from these four provinces are tested as low achievers in reading and mathematics. “We can’t compare this over time because it’s a very different set of regions that took part in china. You can only look at the data separately.”Said Andreas Schleicher.


This directly reflects the limitations that the sample for PISA cannot depict the whole picture of Chinese education. After unified sampling conducted by OECD, a total of 12,058 students from 361 schools in B-S-J-Z, which are at the forefront of China’s economic development and education reform, participated in PISA 2018 with 361 headmasters and 17,634 teachers completing an online questionnaire. Regarding this, Andreas believes: “they cannot represent China as a whole, but still, you can compare between these four provinces with a population size exceeding 180 million and many other countries in the world.”

Andreas was not surprised about the excellent academic result that B-S-J-Z obtained. From his point of view, many factors contributed to this while optimizing teacher resource and teaching method is the most important one. “The four provinces we tested made a major investment in education. They have made teaching as a profession very attracting. Very good people are becoming teachers. ” Said him.

In addition, China’s capacity to match resources in different regions was also praised by Andreas: “For example, in Shanghai, the capacity of the system to attract very good teachers into very difficult schools... the disadvantage students have a good chance to accelerate...The most interesting experience I had is in very poor areas of Yunnan province, where I still saw students getting a very good education. I felt education is changing their lives.”

According to the PISA 2018 Insights and Interpretations(hereinafter referred to as the report), students’ academic performance is still closely related to their socioeconomic background. “In fact, the 10% most socioeconomically advantaged students outperformed their 10% most disadvantaged counterparts in reading by 141 score points, on average across OECD countries. This adds up to the equivalent of over three years of schooling in the countries that were able to estimate learning progress across school grades, and this gap has essentially remained unchanged over the past decade.”

Chinese students’ poor effectiveness and less satisfaction with life

It is worth noting that PISA 2018 shows that students from Mainland China excel in reading, mathematics while their learning activities are less productive in general. Plus, their satisfaction with life ranks the eighth from bottom among all of the countries and regions. Whether in the classroom setting or outside the school, Chinese students always have lots of work to do, shouldering heavy academic burden. “On the one hand you can say students are very prepared for the future, but I also think of the cost for individual students, families costs not only means their money but also their time and effort.” Andreas commented.


In fact, the Chinese government has been rolling out a reform direction of “reducing the burden and increasing efficiency”. “Preparations for exams are a little bit too exaggerated... the exam is just one of many ways to verify learning. It is about whether you can think like a scientist or mathematician, translate a real world problem into a mathematical solving, interpret the result back in the problem context.” Meanwhile, he emphasized that students will achieve more in learning performance if they can maintain a good relationship with teachers and enjoy learning.

What to learn from other countries?

From Andreas’ perspective, the most valuable part of PISA results is to look at the outcome at a realistic way through different statistics and show a whole picture to policymakers across the world rather than the quite limited view.

Actually China’s win did not surprise Andreas since he researched the tested regions pretty well and were expecting to see good results as he commented: “Students from the four provinces can show good results, no matter what their social background is. This is a good example for the world.” However, results from some other countries and regions have impressed him. Estonia as the highest-performing European nation is one of them which has improved the most among OECD countries. The country ranked fifth overall when spending an average of 30% less on education per student. “Estonia shows a very good range of outcomes in cognitive, social, emotional. There is actually quite limited time students allocate to learning but teachers care a lot about student's well beings. They look at many aspects of student's lives and how to make student learn differently. Similar to Finland.”

Andreas also gave examples to show that socioeconomic disadvantage is not directly associated with students and schools’ poor educational performance. “Peru, Brazil, Turkey have made really good improvement. Those countries can also achieve good results. In Europe, same case with Portland and Portugal which advanced to the OECD average level despite being severely hit by the financial crisis.”Said Andreas Schleicher.

In addition, remarkable improvements in Albania, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and Uruguay shows that the quality of education does not have to be sacrificed when increasing access to schooling as the report points out: “these five countries significantly increased enrollment rates in secondary education over their participation in PISA and maintained or improved their mean reading, mathematics and science performance.” So Andreas believes that the key lies in whether a country is totally committed to building a world-class education system even when its own resources are inadequate.

School should be the beginning of lifelong learning

The report also indicated how access to new technologies has increased at a remarkable rate. “In the 2009 PISA assessment, about 15% of students in OECD countries, on average, reported that they did not have access to the Internet at home. By 2018, that proportion had shrunk to less than 5%. Students now spend about 3 hours online outside of school on weekdays, on average, and almost 3.5 hours online on weekend days.” Moreover, the report highlights “while improved access to new technologies provides unprecedented opportunities, it also raises the bar of what it means to be proficient in reading.”

Andreas believes that society today requires diversified capabilities, whether people have enough energy and motivation to keep lifelong learning is crucial. “Environment is changing, sometimes common beliefs have to be drop. Can you learn things, unlearn things, relearn things? The success of school is to prepare students for their life long and life wide learning.”


To keep up with the dramatically changing world, PISA itself is constantly evolving. “When we test reading 10 years ago, it is all about a printed text. Today, reading and all the tests are happening in the digital world, students have to navigate a website rather than read a book. Same in science, they have to design an experiment rather than just learn about an experiment. In 2015, for the first time we tested the social skills of working together. While in 2018, we emphasize global competence, to what extent can students see things in different perspectives, and we put a lot on students’ quality of life.” Said Andreas.

During recent years, dissents worry that sports education, art education may be neglected in the PISA test, and some people argue that the PISA test has made more countries and regions focus more on short term ranks, rather than long term educational reforms. Andreas replied that PISA does need to become better in accessing a wide range of skills. “In the next PISA round (2021), we will add creative skills, arts will become a part of this. Sports education is still under exploration.”

Education reform always takes time, maybe 10 years, 20 years. “ Andreas Schleicher believed, “I do think that PISA can help us to look beyond in the current education system.