Thursday, December 09, 2010

Chinese Students Shanghaied into PISA Stunner?

Shanghai Studies
Sherwin/European Pressphoto Agency
(Image from New York Times)

China seems determined to dominate in everything these day, from sports to economics to politics, and now -- as reported by Sam Dillon in "Top Test Scores From Shanghai Stun Educators" (NYT, December 7, 2010) -- China's triumph on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA):
With China's debut in international standardized testing, students in Shanghai have surprised experts by outscoring their counterparts in dozens of other countries, in reading as well as in math and science, according to the results of a respected exam.
How well did the Chinese do? This well:
PISA scores are on a scale, with 500 as the average. Two-thirds of students in participating countries score between 400 and 600. On the math test last year, students in Shanghai scored 600, in Singapore 562, in Germany 513, and in the United States 487.

In reading, Shanghai students scored 556, ahead of second-place Korea with 539. The United States scored 500 and came in 17th, putting it on par with students in the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and several other countries.

In science, Shanghai students scored 575. In second place was Finland, where the average score was 554. The United States scored 502 -- in 23rd place -- with a performance indistinguishable from Poland, Ireland, Norway, France and several other countries.
This is rather stunning, especially for first-time performers. But I wonder . . . were perhaps the best and the brightest Chinese students shanghaied into this? The claim is that the "5,100 15-year-olds in Shanghai were chosen as a representative cross-section of students in that city," but I have to wonder, given China's record, if there's not a hidden story behind this triumph. Recall the cute little girl Lin Miaoke who sang so well at the Beijing Olympics, only to turn out to have been lip-synching to the voice of Yang Peiyi? The real singer was deemed not cute enough for China's image. Am I overly suspicious, then, in wondering about the representative validity of these test scores? At least one expert raised a similar question:
Shanghai is a huge migration hub within China. Students are supposed to return to their home provinces to attend high school, but the Shanghai authorities could increase scores by allowing stellar students to stay in the city.
Not that I'm impugning the mental abilities of the Chinese, who are both smart and disciplined, and the expert puts his point of suspicion forward only as a speculation, offering no evidence as support. Moreover, the real news, for my money, was that the Shanghai students showed themselves to be doing more than mere rote memory work:
Large fractions of these students demonstrate their ability to extrapolate from what they know and apply their knowledge very creatively in novel situations.
That's something to admire, even if the representative validity of the Shanghai student sample might be questioned.

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At 7:03 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

They are also 'peacefully invading' this very town, Perugia, through the Programma Marco Polo of the University for Foreigners
Probably the University would be 'lost' without those 1,000 students from China.

As far as I know, from some conversations with teachers, Chinese students... do study, and that's good. The problem however is that they 'buy' everything, without any interest in distinguishing between mattering matters and trivia. So, some teachers say that they (the teachers) are losing heart.

At 8:50 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That lack of discernment characterizes too many students churned out by education in East Asia. There's a huge drive for education here, but most of that energy is wasted on rote memorization, and students don't learn to think critically or creatively. That's why the Shanghai results interested me since the point was made that many of the students did work creatively.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Heather said...

I've spent many years in Slovakia, and as you can see, it's somewhere in the middle of the chart, nothing extraordinary. They use to employ memorizing as well, but obviously not the right kind...

At 4:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The Chinese probably get a lot of practice in test-taking, much as do the Koreans, so they likely become experts at taking tests and doing well. Many Koreans do well of TOEIC exams but can't speak English. So much for international communication . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:08 AM, Blogger Carter Kaplan said...

The subject of rote learning is an interesting one. I can get my 18-40 year old transitional writing students to do the exercises in the grammar book--verbally in front of their peers (for example, exercises in which they have to identify the prepositional phrase, then the subject, then the verb, and correct the verb to agree with the subject) but then many of them they cannot (or will not) follow this simple procedure and make the appropriate corrections on their essays when the prepositional-phrase-subject-verb-agreement problem crops up.

I don't know if this is their lack of creative and critical intelligence, or simply their laziness, but I suspect it's the latter.

At 2:35 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

It could be laziness . . . or a lack of ability, or training, in applying what one has learned.

Jeffery Hodges

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