Chinese teens put to the information age test in global Pisa education study

Zhuang Pinghui

Fifteen-year-olds in some of China’s most affluent cities far outstrip their counterparts in most other countries when it comes to an important skill in the information age, according to a global education study.

Some 22 per cent of the 15-year-olds surveyed in Beijing, Shanghai, and Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces showed they could handle abstract concepts and discern facts from opinions in what they read by achieving a reading level of at least 5 out of 6 in the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa).

Only Singapore did better with 26 per cent of the city state’s students reaching the mark, while the average overall was 8.7 per cent, according to test results released on Tuesday.

Pisa said the skill was becoming more important as technology allowed easy access to information and reading had become more about building knowledge, thinking critically and making well-founded judgments than extracting information.

Among 15-year-old students from the other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries surveyed, 13.5 per cent in the United States, 11.5 per cent in Britain and 14.3 per cent in Finland were deemed as top reading performers.

Even the 10 per cent most disadvantaged students in China showed better reading skills than those of the average student in OECD countries, and performed on par with the 10 per cent most advantaged students in some of them.

The report said that although these four cities and provinces could not represent China as a whole, their achievement was “even more remarkable” as the level of income of these four Chinese areas was well below the average for members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

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Chen Fangfang, a Chinese-language teacher at a public middle school in Shanghai, attributed the performance to extensive reading and intensive school training.

“We give students reading tasks regularly,” Chen said.

She said teachers researched reading questions from other Chinese-language test papers and generalised tips for students to get to the correct answers.

“We train students accordingly. Their ability to answer questions on such reading comprehension has greatly improved,” Chen said.

China came first in all three categories – science, mathematics and reading – in the study.

The Ministry of Education’s National Assessment Centre for Education Quality said the results clarified gains the country had made in curriculum building and teaching reform, and its emphasis in education.

“This should give us enough confidence in continuously deepening reform in the right direction,” the centre said.

“At the same time, we can find from the Pisa data that some major problems persist, such as the heavy learning burden on students and their low sense of belonging to school and low life satisfaction.”

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Zhejiang University education professor Fang Zhanhua said the Pisa scores were a shot of confidence for Chinese education authorities, but changes were still need to move away from the present score-oriented teaching model to one that nurtures students’ “comprehensive qualities”.

“China’s education system has been criticised a lot domestically, but generally speaking, it’s becoming better and better than before,” Fang said.

Many education departments and schools have put a lot of work into researching Pisa tests, seeing them as part of “education internationalisation”.

Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the Shanghai-based 21st Century Education Research Institute, said China should at most only take Pisa as one reference and keep its own pace of education reform.

The Pisa assessment focused on three subjects, which is exactly what reformers in China were trying to change, Xiong said.

“Education in primary and middle school should focus on comprehensive development, including development in ethics, arts and sport. Where are these indicators in the Pisa assessment?” Xiong said.

But the basic literacy skills were helpful in learning other skills, according to Hau Kit-tai, professor of educational psychology with the Chinese University of Hong Kong and national project manager of Hong Kong Pisa 2018

“We can conclude that the things being taught in schools in these top cities and provinces in China are what OECD/Pisa (and other countries) think very important,” Hau said

“Or, we are in the right direction in our curriculum.”

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