My Take

Pisa 'politics' of no concern to parents

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 3:20am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 December, 2013, 3:20am

What should we make of the ranking results of Pisa?

Should we in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which consistently come out on top in the Programme for International Student Assessment gloat about it; worry the results may be too one-sided and thus papering over the obvious defects in our education systems; or just ignore them?

What I observe over the years is that there is rarely any neutral reporting of the results in the news media of the major countries tested. Most of the reports and commentaries they generate tend to reflect the fears and biases of the people writing them. So western media such as those in Germany, Britain and the US would focus on how badly their youngsters have performed. Countries in Asia that did well such as Singapore and China would proudly report the results.

A public debate in Hong Kong will inevitably ensue between those who defend our competitive, exam-centred education system, and those who are critical of it.

This is despite repeated warnings from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which runs Pisa, that the results are not reliable or accurate enough to present as ranking tables. But, of course, they inevitably do.

Despite the tests being standardised, the assessment of 510,000 15-year-olds' proficiency in reading, maths and science every three years administrated in 65 countries and economies is still far from being an exact statistical science. Interpreting Pisa results has become a cottage industry in academia. They are used by policymakers of different political persuasions to push for their educational agendas.

But the one reason Pisa attracts so much attention may have little to do with education but national rivalry, especially between East and West. The US and countries in western Europe have consistently achieved mediocre scores.

Countries in East Asia's so-called Confucian belt inevitably top the rankings. Those labelled emerging markets such as Turkey, Brazil and Indonesia are consistently improving. This simply feeds into the geopolitical narrative of the decline of the west and the rise of the rest.

But as parents in East or West, we probably don't need to worry too much about Pisa.