Education & Family

'Bad loser' accusation on doubters of Pisa school tests

Andreas Schleicher
The OECD's Andreas Schleicher says doubts over Pisa tests reveal "old stereotypes"

People in Western countries sceptical about the success of Chinese pupils in the international Pisa tests have been attacked as bad losers, by the OECD's education expert, Andreas Schleicher.

He likened them to doubters over sporting victories.

"Whenever an American or European wins an Olympic gold medal, we cheer them as heroes. When a Chinese does, the first reflex seems to be that they must have been doping," he said.

Shanghai topped last week's tables.

But Mr Schleicher has responded strongly to suggestions that the success of East Asian school systems was not a fair representation of their ability.

'Cheating'

He said that as soon as the results in tests in maths, reading and science had been published last Tuesday there had been claims that the Chinese "must have been cheating".

There was no single entry for China, instead 15-year-olds in individual regional systems were tested, such as Shanghai and Hong Kong.

These were among the highest performing in the industrialised world - outperforming the UK, which remained among middle-ranking countries, making no progress since the last Pisa tests three years before.

In the next wave of Pisa tests there will be a wider range of Chinese provinces taking part, including Beijing and Guangdong.

The tests last week showed the US and Western European countries slipping behind, overtaken by countries in East Asia and Eastern Europe.

In an angry article for his OECD blog, Mr Schleicher has rejected claims that the success of pupils in Chinese cities is based on an unrepresentative sample of pupils or that the research methodology was flawed.

He highlighted claims that the Shanghai tests did not include migrant children, which he said were false.

In particular he was responding to media reports in the US doubting the reliability of the results, which saw the US falling behind Asian countries including Vietnam.

He said that critics preferred to "cling to old stereotypes" rather than face up to the gap in ability levels.

"Consider this - only 2% of American 15-year-olds and 3% of European ones reach the highest level of maths performance in Pisa... in Shanghai it is over 30%," he said.

There were also fundamental differences in attitudes.

"In many countries, students were quick to blame everyone but themselves," said Mr Schleicher.

He used the example of France, an average performer similar to the UK, where he said students were too quick to blame their teachers or to claim they were unlucky with the questions.

"International comparisons are never easy and they aren't perfect. But Pisa shows what is possible in education, it takes away excuses from those who are complacent," he said.

There had also been doubts in the UK about how much detail should be drawn from these tests.

Prof Harvey Goldstein from the University of Bristol says he would like to see an "independent evaluation of the way that Shanghai selects the schools and students to participate, and also an analysis of how much test coaching takes place in the various countries".

He has also raised the question of how the same question might be interpreted differently when it was used in different languages.

Prof David Spieghalter from University of Cambridge, said last week: "We should be very cautious in the lessons to be learned."

"While it would be nice if the UK were the Manchester United of maths, quality of education is not as easily measured as football prowess.

"And if Pisa measures anything, it is the ability to do Pisa tests. Aligning policy along a single performance indicator can be damaging - we need to look at the whole picture."

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