Beware Chinese data — its schools might not be so great

Jay Mathews
Columnist January 19

For much of my life, I have been obsessed with China. A TV documentary about the Great Leap Forward caught my eye when I was 16. I studied Chinese language, government and history in college and graduate school, then spent five years as The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Hong Kong and Beijing. My wife, who was my Los Angeles Times competitor, and I wrote a book about the country.

I love Chinese culture. I think the creative competition between China and the United States is a plus for humanity. But I learned long ago not to trust Chinese government statistics. Chinese officials these days are more enlightened and honest than the ones I dealt with, but they appear to be distorting data in ways that are harmful to educators’ efforts in China and the United States to learn from each other.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

The most authoritative information on Chinese data fiddling comes from Brookings Institution senior fellow Tom Loveless, an expert on international school assessments. He said that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which produces the famous Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, has let the Chinese inflate the quality of schools in Shanghai, which had the top overall PISA scores worldwide. Even worse in my view, PISA founder Andreas Schleicher has apparently been promoting Chinese claims of high scores in other provinces, with no public proof.

In a recent Brookings Web site article, Loveless challenged PISA’s portrayal of Shanghai as a “high equity” school system, a label that would indicate that it does not exclude disadvantaged students who usually don’t do as well on PISA exams. Studies don’t support the PISA claim that the Shanghai public schools equitably serve families that live in that huge city. The problem is the hukou system, an internal registration process from the Mao Zedong era, which drives migrant children out of Shanghai as they approach high school age. China reported only the scores from Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macao, while most other countries’ scores are national.

Shanghai officials are working on the problem, but it is still difficult for the children of poor Chinese migrants to gain access to academic high schools. Many children are forced to go back to their home provinces, cutting them off from their parents and leaving them uncounted and untested by PISA.

Loveless quoted PISA praising Shanghai’s “stunning success,” which “shows what can be achieved with moderate economic resources in a diverse social context.” Why then, Loveless asked, is the concentration of 15-year-olds — the group that takes the PISA test — so much smaller in Shanghai than the average for other participating countries?

The city reports 108,056 15-year-olds within a population of 23 million people. That’s 36.5 percent of what would be predicted by the world average for that age group. It is a much lower figure than any other PISA country.

Births in Shanghai, as in all of China, have been limited by the government. But Loveless cited experts who say this does not explain the population discrepancies. He said PISA should not cite the city as a model until it provides more information.

Schleicher has said that his tests have been given in 12 other Chinese provinces, and “even in rural areas and in disadvantaged environments, you see a remarkable performance.” These exam results were collected by Chinese officials who have not given them to PISA, though some Chinese bloggers have written enthusiastic reviews. There is no authentic information, which takes me back to official reports of great abundance in the Great Leap Forward a half-century ago, when there was major famine.

Loveless suggested that PISA at least acknowledge in its reports that Shanghai might still be excluding some migrant children and that it give more details about its testing arrangements with China. The Chinese are a great people making impressive strides in many areas, but we need to know more about their data before we reach any conclusions about how good their schools are.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

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