The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No. 1 Shanghai may drop out of PISA

First in 2009 and then in 2012, Shanghai’s 15-year-old students (or, rather, a supposed representative group)  were No. 1 in the world on the recent Program for International Student Assessment reading, math and science exams. But now, according to a popular Shanghai newspaper, Shanghai is considering dropping out of PISA. Why?

The title of the article in Xinmin Wanbao goes a long way to answer that question: “Not interested in No. 1 on International Tests, Focusing on Reducing Academic Burden: Shanghai May Drop Out of PISA.”

According to the article, explained in the following post by scholar Yong Zhao, Shanghai officials want to de-emphasize standardized test scores, homework and rote learning that has characterized Chinese education. And PISA, which is sponsored by Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, emphasizes standardized test scores.

Last year, China began a major education reform initiative designed to increase student engagement and end student boredom and anxiety — and reduce the importance of standardized test scores.

Shanghai, which is wealthier than the rest of China and is not itself representative of the rest of China, participated in PISA as a separate education system. After Shanghai became No. 1 out of 65 countries and education systems (the United States came out no better than average, as usual), a great deal of attention was put on its school system, including criticism that one of the reasons it does so well on PISA is that the group of students who are tested as the representative group of Shanghai’s 15-year-olds excludes many migrant students.

Here’s the post from Yong Zhao, presidential chair and director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the University of Oregon’s College of Education, where he is also a professor in the Department of Educational Measurement, Policy and Leadership. He is the author of numerous articles and books, including “Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization,” and focuses his work on the implications of globalization and technology on education. This appeared on his blog.

By Yong Zhao

Not interested in No. 1 on International Tests, Focusing on Reducing Academic Burden: Shanghai May Drop Out of PISA” is the headline of a story in Xinmin Wanbao [original story in Chinese], a popular newspaper in Shanghai.

Published on March 7 2014, the story reports that Shanghai “is considering to withdraw from the next round of PISA in 2015” because “Shanghai does not need so-called ‘No. 1 schools,’” said Yi Houqin, a high level official of Shanghai Education Commission. “What it needs are schools that follow sound educational principles, respect principles of students’ physical and psychological development, and lay a solid foundation for students’ lifelong development,” says the article, quoting Mr. Yi.

One of the shortfalls of Shanghai education masked by its top PISA ranking, Mr. Yi pointed out, is excessive amount of homework, according to the story. For example, teachers in Shanghai spend two to five hours designing, reviewing, analyzing, and discussing homework assignment every day.

“Over half of the students spend more than one hour on school work after school [every day]; Teachers’ estimate of homework load is much lower than actual experiences of students and parents; although the homework is not particularly difficult, much of it is mechanical and repetitive tasks that take lots of time; furthermore, our teachers are more used to mark the answers as ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ while students are hoping their teachers can help them open their minds and point out their problems.”

“Homework is only one of the elements that supports student development,” an unnamed PISA official told Xinmin Wanbao. “Their skills and qualities should also be acquired from a variety of activities such as play, online activities, and games instead of merely completing academic assignments or extending homework time.”

“Shanghai will not participate in PISA forever,” Professor Zhang Minxuan, director of PISA in China, told another Shanghai newspaper Xinwen Chenbao in December 2013 [original story in Chinese]. “It will develop its own [education quality] evaluation system.”

The evaluation system Professor Zhang alluded to is the so-called “green evaluation.” The new evaluation system de-emphasizes the significance of test scores. Instead of being the sole measure of educational quality, test scores become one of 10 indicators Shanghai (and China) will use to evaluate schools. The new evaluation system will measure student motivation and engagement, student-teacher relationship, and physical fitness, according to Xinwen Chenbao.

Whether or when Shanghai decides to drop PISA is unknown and dependent on many factors, political consideration being one. But it is clear that Shanghai officials have acknowledged that PISA does not give them what they want. Its narrow definition of education quality as test scores obscures other aspects of education that are much more important.

Moreover, it seems that the No. 1 status has given Shanghai education officials a big headache, according to a leading education policy researcher in Shanghai, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity recently. He believes that Shanghai’s success in PISA has backfired.

“People know very well our education is no good, but when you don’t boast as the world’s best, they leave you alone. Now you claim to be the best, people begin to question you and expose all the problems that you cannot solve.” The government does not want that and “thus wants to get out of it.”

I’ll be doing a live online chat on Wednesday, May 28, at 1 p.m. You can click here and submit questions, comments, jokes, or whatever you like beforehand, and join me then if you can.