Just four regions participated in testing in the country – the cities of Beijing and Shanghai and the provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu – which when combined, scored significantly higher in some areas than other countries.
“The national ministry has been piloting PISA… in preparation for fuller participation across China”
“These are all [in] the most developed eastern region[s] of China, it’s not representative of the country,” Renmin University education expert Cheng Fangping told The Straits Times.
However, the OECD argues that the results are not intended to represent the whole of China, even though they are often interpreted as such.
When asked why only the wealthiest parts of China were included in the study, A representative from the OECD told The PIE News that over recent cycles, “the national ministry has been piloting PISA in several provinces and municipalities in preparation for fuller participation across China”.
The OECD said that which areas are included is an “individual countries’ decision”.
“As the OECD, we are working on the understanding that countries are working towards national participation, but the OECD has no direct influence over the choice of regions,” the representative added.
China has been participating in PISA since 2009, making it unclear why they have required over a decade to work towards a more representative sample.
This year also marked a change from the previous round of testing, with Guangdong province replaced in favour of Zhejiang.
“The chatter on the internet in China is that Guangdong dragged down China’s performance in the last round because of its poor performance, which may be a result of large population and very unequal development within the province,” Yong Zhao, a professor at Kansas University, told The PIE.
“Zhejiang has a smaller population and perhaps more even development levels and better education.”
China’s education system has both its fans and detractors. It is notable for being intensively competitive, with students expected to spend a large amount of time studying everyday and an emphasis on rote memorisation.
And while many acknowledge the system needs reforming – in part due to fears over students’ mental health and the expenses families must bear for specialised ‘cram schools’ – provinces are reluctant to do so as one province changing its system would put it at a disadvantage compared to other provinces.
Zhao, who has written extensively about the limits of what PISA data can actually demonstrate as well as on the Chinese education system, warned that it should not be treated as a “valid, reliable, and accurate measure of our children’s ability to succeed in the future”.
“I sincerely hope that policymakers and education leaders do not attempt to draw valuable lessons from the results,” he added.