Beyond tests

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2011, 12:00am

Last month, the world was stunned to learn that 15-year-olds in Shanghai had come first compared with their counterparts around the world in reading, maths and science. It was the first time Shanghai had taken part in the test, the Programme for International Students Assessment (Pisa), organised by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The latest results were for testing done in 2009.

China's achievements - or rather Shanghai's, as the country as a whole did not take part - created a sensation, especially in the US. President Barack Obama talked of a 'Sputnik moment', referring to the launch of the first satellite in 1957, when the Soviet Union beat the US into space, and warned that 'America is in danger of falling behind' again. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reacted by saying: 'We're being out-educated', and called on Americans to 'wake up to this education reality'.

Interestingly, however, within China there was not much exultation. Certainly, there was pride in Shanghai's achievements but there was also a great deal of introspection as to the real significance of the test results and the need for reform of the Chinese education system.

Chinese media widely cited the findings of a 2009 survey covering 21 countries conducted by the International Assessment of Educational Progress, which showed that while Chinese students excelled at maths, they were in last place when it came to using their imagination and were fifth from bottom where creativity was concerned.

An article in the China Daily by Chen Weihua, the deputy editor of its US edition, while saluting the Shanghai students and teachers for their hard work, went on to say that the grooming of 'superb test-takers' comes at a high cost, 'often killing much of, if not all, the joy of childhood'.

A visit to see relatives in Shanghai last month confirmed the pressures that most children are under to do well in exams. Their mother sympathises but sees little alternative to the endless cycle of preparation for one exam after another. In fact, most Shanghai children are made to attend after-school and weekend classes, with little time to play or even sleep.

Because Shanghai is the most advanced city on the mainland, its children are competing against the best and brightest, and the pressures on them are greater than those on schoolchildren elsewhere. As a result of the intense competition, parents seek to uncover special talents in their offspring in other areas, such as playing the flute or other musical instruments, so they can be one step ahead of their competitors.

Ironically, while Americans admire Shanghai's students for doing so well in exams, Chen, the China Daily editor, denigrated students who are little more than 'test machines' who lack imagination and creativity.

And his voice was by no means the only one. Jiang Xueqin, deputy principal of the Peking University High School, wrote in similar tones in a commentary in The Wall Street Journal, pointing out that China's most promising students still need to go abroad and 'unlearn the test-centric approach to knowledge that was drilled into them'. The current Chinese education system, he said, is holding the country back. 'Shanghai's stellar results on Pisa,' he wrote, 'are a symptom of the problem.' He added: 'One way we'll know we're succeeding in changing China's schools is when those Pisa scores come down.'

So while the US needs to learn from China's national commitment to education and take basic schooling of its children much more seriously - perhaps including such steps as extending the school year, which is currently about a month shorter than school years in Asian countries - there is no need to panic.

As for China, clearly, while enjoying their moment in the sun, Chinese educators realise that their system is by no means superior, and much needs to be done to enable students to think for themselves rather than simply memorise facts and answers.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1