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  • Dec 19, 2014
  • Updated: 2:07am
NewsHong Kong

Shanghai teens still world's best at reading, maths, science in Pisa survey

Mainland city's 15-year-olds the best at reading, maths and science, global survey finds, but HK youngsters are snapping at their heels

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 December, 2013, 7:58pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 December, 2013, 12:25pm

Shanghai's 15-year-olds are still the best in the world at reading, maths and science, according to the latest global survey.

Hong Kong's youngsters ranked second in science and reading - up from third and fourth in 2009 - and held their third place for maths.

But compared with their counterparts in Singapore - second in maths, and third in science and reading - Hong Kong pupils improved less, gaining only 11 points more in reading and six in maths and in science from the 2009 assessment. The Singaporeans gained 16 points in reading, 11 in maths and nine in science. Shanghai students also showed more improvement, gaining 14 points in reading and 13 in maths compared with 2009.

The assessments also showed that just 12 per cent of pupils in Hong Kong were top achievers in maths, well below the 30.8 per cent for Shanghai and 19 per cent in Singapore.

The latest report by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) was based on surveys of more than half a million 15-year-olds in 65 countries and regions.

Professor Esther Ho Sui-chu, director of the Centre for International Student Assessment in Hong Kong, said: "I think the differences in improvement are not very important."

She attributed those differences to the way cities treated the assessment.

"I don't know how Shanghai and Singapore did the assessment, but Hong Kong students did not prepare for the assessment and took it in a relaxed way," she said.

In April and May last year, 5,000 Hong Kong pupils from 148 government, aided and independent schools were randomly selected to take the assessments.

"We need to work on how to nurture more bright students, as our exam-orientated system tends to focus on high achievers' performance in exams but does not help them learn more than that," Ho said.

The difference in performance among pupils from the same school also increased, suggesting that the abilities of children within the same school vary more. And there were significant differences between the sexes in maths and reading, with boys outperforming girls by 15 points in maths and girls outscoring boys by 25 points in reading.

Ho said the government had to provide teachers with more resources to develop different teaching methods or materials for students of various ability levels.

An Education Bureau spokesman said the results showed that Hong Kong's curriculum reform, with its emphasis on "reading to learn", mathematics development and scientific thinking, had been a success.

"The outstanding performance of Hong Kong pupils in Pisa once again proves that our education is heading in the right direction," the spokesman said.

He said pupils' socio-economic status seemed to have less effect on their performance than in other regions, and that differences in performance among schools was smaller, suggesting they are provided with equal opportunities to receive high- quality education.

Hong Kong joined the ranking in 2000, when the three-yearly study, which began as a comparison between OECD member countries, was opened up to other school systems.



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"I don't know how Shanghai and Singapore did the assessment, but Hong Kong students did not prepare for the assessment and took it in a relaxed way," she said.
Are HK students *ever* allowed to relax?
Let me give you a high school physics problem and see if you can respond with "rote learning."
In my decade plus of teaching, I had never given a SINGLE closed book exam to my students, including physical science to non-majors.
People talking about critical thinking don't know what the term means. I have heard academics discuss innovation, democracy and all that jazz. When quizzed, they didn't understand critically the 3 little statements of Newton's laws familiar to HK students, let alone solve a problem creatively.
Without solid grounding in basics and logic, liberal studies become a minefield. Once for entertainment, I picked 2 SCMP opinion pieces and broke them down into parts – statement units – and analyzed them. These writers violated every principle in sentential logic. Worse, they were talking about critical thinking.
True, Chinese children raised in HK's environment are handicapped by low "emotional" quotient. Their reticent manners are gratifying sources to English speaking specialists selling vaporware.
What my erudite Chinese academic colleagues and HK students need is a dosage of can-do attitude, though not the uninhibited braggadocio variety displayed by English speaking expats and bananas.
Yellow people have an inferiority complex, which stems largely from widespread poverty.
Maybe you have valid points in that what HK students need is an extra element of focusing on emotional quotient and "can do attitude".
I certainly don't claim to be an expert of the education industries and its methods, instead I am someone who aims to reap the benefits of the education system through filtering through the supposed "cream of the crop"; so my view are purely through when hiring candidates (both young and old) into my team.
Having been educated overseas and returning to HK to work, I am someone who prefers a candidate with passable test scores but great personality over someone who just has straight A's. And from my observation, it is quite evident that locally educated graduates lack the personality part of it, and are unable to discover and explore on their own without given exact directions to follow.
The reason is from my memory of my own school life overseas, the schooling is very much based on your own will and want to discover more about the subject, if you are keen and want great marks, there are no tutors or teachers who will "tip" questions, but instead, you seek to understand the concepts and learn to apply when thrown a curve-ball, and it is through such teaching methods where we learn to not respond with "rote learning."
Unfortunately, friends who are placing kids into pre-school are being taught model answers at such a young age, how do you expect them to move away from the memorize and recite system.
Dai Muff
It's a toss up whether this is accidentally misleading or deliberate cheating. Every other country takes an aggregate of pupils across the country. In the case of Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, you are very carefully selecting CITIES that are among the most educated in their environment. Let's see the results of an average selection of cross-China students before we puff out our chests too far. Not a self-selected brightest city. Other provinces in China actually have taken the PISA test. China, a big country, has only released Shanghai's scores.
A tale about how the Prussian Army selected it officers and soldiers holds a lesson for Asians.
Two tests were given to determine if a person was: Stupid or Clever; Lazy or Hardworking.
Those who were Clever and Lazy were made High officers.
Those who were Clever and Hardworking were made Low officers.
Those who were Stupid and Lazy were made regular soldiers.
Those who were Stupid and Hardworking were taken out and shot so they caused no more damage to the organization.
Clever and Lazy always have the Clever and Hardworking do all the work.
Clever and Lazy Americans have the Clever and Hardworking Asians doing all the work.
High test scores are not the only key to success.
Hong Kong 15 year olds second best in reading, maths and science.
Great, but note that after 15 many in the West catch-up and keep going whilst HK'ers are still stuck in exam-passing mode.
That sense of superiority is enforced by the HK Govt and more so by schools protecting their reputation. In 1993 when I learned my mid-levels band 1 school was still teaching the same way it ruined my academic appetite in the 60s, I enrolled my son in a no name school next door renowned for its relaxing syllabus. My mother-in-law was furious and I became recognizable in the Wanchai market.
My niece was labelled a daydreamer and too opiniated for the taste of my former school. Her daydreams turned out to be essays on religion, abortion, trending, etc. that not one of her classmates would understand. The principal summoned my brother and estimated she could get 4 As in the HKCEE if she studied harder on math.
My buddy was summoned by the principal, same school, because his P.6 son sleeped in every class. The kid was the top second in his grade. He was bored.
Instead of developing the talents of these 2 kids, my former school was hooked in improving their exam performance and its reputation.
So what about the things that really matter. Like social skills, empathy, responsibility, consideration, critical thinking?
Those you can not memorise like a mindless CCP drone.
Congratulations to all the schools and students for their high scores! Now, where do these brilliant people go after their studies? I seem unable to see them making an impact in Hong Kong in general, and definitely not in the HK Government (same applies for Singapore, by the way).
Don't know what random sampling means? Go to a college and audit a baby statistics course. If you don't understand something, why do you badmouth it? What has HK government to do with sample selection?
You really have to check your superciliousness. Reading means reading comprehension. Band 2 & 3 students in Chinese schools may comprehend more than you think. PISA tests them in their native language, not in English. Most SCMP readers are not particularly good at understanding what they read. Is English their problem?
There are many Chinese and Shanghai bashers here. Why can't they just accept that Asians took top spots because of their Confucian discipline and intestinal fortitude.
I don't believe group performance will produce super-intellects who are movers and shakers. On the other hand, if countries with high PISA score manage their development skillfully, they have more human resources to build a skilled workforce, which is a factor in the income production function.
For those critics with less than sterling math skills, they must have noticed that many professions are not in their menu of choices. They missed the boat long ago because they didn't do well in math at 15.
Eat your heart out. Bashing China and Shanghai won't change PISA results one iota. If HK obstructionists don't engage in political self flagellation and sabotage, we can work on guiding our youngsters to gainful employment. Their PISA shows they are eminently trainable.
Dai Muff
"Don't know what random sampling means?" Yes. It means NOT choosing students who are in your top percentile by location and claiming they reflect the country's education standards or intellect.
Shanghai is the home of China's elite, and there are restrictions that keep migrant students out of municipal schools. It makes up less than 2% of the country's population. The teachers there are paid more than double those in outlying provinces, and schools are significantly better funded. Shanghai's per capita GDP is more than double the national average, and parents spend a lot on outside tutoring. About 84% of Shanghai high school graduates go to college, compared to 24% nationally.
contact me when one of the high test individuals land on the moon or invent the next iPhone
in the mean time just keep making them, thank you
The top PISA score countries are all in the Confucian Belt.
Is Confucian tradition at least as good as any monotheistic Abrahamic faith in raising children? Why do dumb HKers think West is best in everything, including their middle school education, fundamentalist Judeo-Christianity and dysfunctional democracies? When will the yellow people purge themselves of their inferiority complex?
Deep down inside, I am not sure if this kind of test superiority will result in producing the crème de la crème.

Based on how these Asian countries including Japan had come from way behind and are now among the world’s developed nations, I suspect their Confucian educational philosophy correlates strongly with economic development.
My guess is other Asian nations with Confucian practices in their minority cultures will do better than those without. Using PISA scores as a predictor, Vietnam will beat out Cambodia, Thailand and India.

Western wealth today is a yesterday’s story. Western share of global wealth has no way to go but down, down, down.

Singapore with a living standard (GDP per capita adjusted for PPP) of 20% above the US is an outstanding example. It is a blatantly Confucian society. Five decades ago, it was probably as poor as Ceylon.
With India’s democracy and free elections, how well would it score had it been invited to participate in PISA?
Dai Muff
Three of the "top PISA score countries" are not countries. That is how the books get cooked.
The fact that Asians rank higher is not just because of generally stricter parenting, but also because the fact that most Asians (both in Shanghai and Hong Kong), are forced into tutoring camps where they are providing with test questions constantly are told to memorize how to respond. That combination makes it quite hard to actually do poorly in exams, but also produce students to build their critic, application, and also understanding skills for themselves.
The right balance must be struck when educating our youths, since that you end up with students who comes out of the system with the inability to do anything apart from what they are told, and when they are confronted with a problem that is outside the norm, they aren't able to apply their knowledge to solve issues.
Without a focus on understanding and application, Asia will continue to be unable to innovate, and continue to only follow the steps of our Western counterparts, since that although test scores in Western society may not as superior, the smart few also think of new ways to get out of their predicament.
Having interviewed a lot of locally educated students, it often disheartens me that so many candidates possess great scores, but are unable to hold up an interesting and interactive conversation, and when thrown a curve-ball during an interview, they just aren't able to adapt and think outside the box; whereas, Western educated Asians are more often able to answer the curve-balls, but worst scores.
Kudos to excellent students from Shanghai. It's unfortunate that so many more of their compatriots living in migrant work camps in the least desirable areas of great cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou as well as hundreds of millions of children struggling in impoverished rural regions can not share in the same opportunities as our esteemed Shanghai-students. Most of them are privileged to attend private schools charging upward of US$10,000 or $60K RMB annually with additional expenses for tutors. Such is the new reality in today's China where the top 2% (28 millions) consume 35% of all the world's luxury goods and services (Gucci, Prada, Mercedes, BMW, private jets and yachts) with another 20% (280 millions) reaching developed world- consumption standards (US$15K to $20K annually) but a staggering 75% (1.1 billion+) living at the subsistence level - according to the World Bank. The fact that children of the privileged-elites score exceedingly well in academic evaluations is not surprising, but the sad truth remains where hundreds of millions of children struggling in migrant work camps and rural regions can not even qualify to be evaluated is beyond shameful. For China, the world's largest socialist country, to extol achievements of its well-connected elites (2%) while hiding the dire plight of its overwhelmingly-vast majority (75%) is criminal. This reflects a corrupt and tyrannical regime focused on exclusive-gains through exploitation of its people.
N I suppose HK is much better with many living in pigeon holes, or subdivided homes, or caged homes. At least China can claim to be still a developing country with a GDP per capita of US$10,000, and they do acknowledge that. HK likes to boast that it is Asia's World City, a world class advanced economy, but unfortunately a sizeable group live in appalling Third World conditions

Usual false sense of superiority promoted by the likes of SCMP. My son goes to the same school I went to 40 years ago; I constantly worry that the school tries to squeeze the last bit of magic out of him...
Can't agree more. And I quote ""I don't know how Shanghai and Singapore did the assessment, but Hong Kong students did not prepare for the assessment and took it in a relaxed way,".
In other words, if HK had "prepared" for it, it will trump the whole world!
Why can't some HK people just learn to be gracious in defeat?
I for one, can't believe that HK could be relaxed about the whole thing, given the hyper competitive nature of many of its residents, such as constantly comparing themselves to Singapore for instance, as SCMP has shown over the years
While it is not politically correct to say so perhaps the reason why Asian students do better on these type assessment is based upon a higher overall iq than other races. In the US, for example, Asian students out perform students from other racial groups in almost every category.
Not a fact that anyone is willing to discuss..
whymank’s inspiring remarks made me think of several things
“When will the yellow people purge their inferiority complex?” he asked
and he isn’t sure if “test superiority will result in producing crème de la crème”
Willie P head of HK Bk during HK’s return to China
rightly noted in an interview with Instituitional Investors
that real bright local Chinese would do their own things
and not work for others
Among local professionals in HK who are the most “respectable”
Engineers who mostly have to work for foreign firms?
Lawyers who make a living aping foreign customs
trying to compete with others in a foreign tongue?
They remind me of Franzen’s Freedom
where the child who preferred the next door family
moved to live with the neighbor
Academic ability, like freedom and independence
can’t take any one far if it isn’t applied for wise purposes
To measure sucesss, we must first start with test parameters
Historically power moved from Greece to Rome to Vandals
To gain general respectability aim at wealth, power and culture
not just for yourself but also for you own people
Japanese “statesmen” in black suit
look to me like homeless monkies acting at home
Hong Kong may score high in PISA, like the rest of students in the Confucius influenced countries are the products of straight discipline for schooling. These students have an edge as test takers for their additional drillings in afterschool learning. The best results of the once every three year test may become predictable where they would go unless the time of the test takers spent totally in learning before taking the PISA tests is weight in. But I am concern more of the unintended effect of the PISA when countries outside of the Asian ones that should they begin to see them as a model to emulate.
Professor Esther HO is rightly to point out that the assessment of student performance has been too focus on test achievement and produces good test takers. The sad thing is that bright students are in the mix of the rest in the Hong Kong education system. Albeit there are three bandings, schools for the gifted in arts and science are jarringly absent in Hong Kong. New York City has schools for the gifted for the longest time in history and one can count them with two hands full.
The PISA should do a follow up study. For who took the test in year 2000 they must be by now 28 years old. How are they doing? Most likely we know, for those Asians they would be doing fine in achieving a well to do living. Anything above average in breakthroughs most likely historically development most likely would be exception rather than the rule when given even few more years.
Find out the current achievements in term of their careers of those who took the test in year 2000. They must be 28 years old at the threshold to their prime.
Ironies abound as Shanghai achieves the highest test scores when China’s new leadership is restricting excessive time and work for students in schools. Too, Chinese students are heading more ever at younger age to US and Britain -- the two average PISA achievers. While the ironies may be related, the sure thing I can imagine is that the school children are most likely happy participants in both.
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"Shanghai is the home of China's elite, and there are restrictions that keep migrant students out of municipal schools."
Yes, Shanghai as well as many other metropoles in the Mainland are the home of the elite's. So are other big cities around the world in different countries.
"The teachers there are paid more than double those in outlying provinces, and schools are significantly better funded."
The cost of living in Shanghai is also much higher than in outlying provinces. You can not pay a teacher in Shanghai only 2000RMB/month. The schools in Shanghai are better funded because Shanghai is a big city, like New York where schools as well are better funded than schools in "Smallville".
"and parents spend a lot on outside tutoring".
In the USA, if we want to have quality education you have to pay premiums for it. In Europe, parents as well spend a lot on outside tutoring if their offsprings performes bad in school. What is your point?
"About 84% of Shanghai high school graduates go to college, compared to 24% nationally."
I will pretend the figures are accurate.....And in other countries it's different?
They say the Indians are all top scorers & the prominent group of engineers/CEOs in Silicon Valley. How come Indian students are not listed in this survey? If not, that means the results are not accurate. It's like deleting Usain Bolt in running & naming the next guy as the best.
A person I know used to send flowers anonymously
to hard working and plain looking female colleagues
on February 14
I learnt from this beautiful woman
that one shouldn’t overstuff oneself on Boxing Day
Annual events that repeat themselves
should be appreciated from different angles
please don't neglect the plain and ordinary
Please don't neglect the plain and ordinary
5,000 randomly selected. I can't help suspecting how random it is. It doesn't surprise me the HK Govt would attempt to mislead the researchers' sample selection.
HK students are battle toughen in exams so they should rank high in science and math. But reading? That is a total surprise. The daily school curriculum is already suffocating enough for the majority. Playtime is precious usually during meals. Reading is for the smarter ones with proper parental guidance.
15 year olds in band 2 & 3 schools do not read. Period. The majority of these students would presume SCMP is a Chinese newspaper. Trust me.
Given all things equal especially socially and politically, American Chinese or Asian American is of better academic acumen in general for a period. The more meaningful description is not so much of IQ but more for me that they are good sprinters and not very good in gearing up for long distance. With that description I do want to know why – politically correct or including outside of US.


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